Chapter 1: from dust and clay
“Give us peace. Please.”
The gods murmur. Zeus's breath smells of crackling ozone and clouds. His words roll like thunder.
“Give us rest.”
Though all is the same in death, this shade's voice seems almost more… tangible, then the first. Both god and man, strangely unfit for such a place. They pay no mind.
“The prophecy has been fulfilled, we are done. We are tired.”
Hera laughs, something about the desperation at which they spoke. Thetis winces from where she kneels.
“We were promised peace.”
I did not get the son I was promised. Her voice is of waves crashing into rocks. The icy cold depths of the ocean. He died too young, he did not live his full potential.
“All we want is peace, please.”
Many die in youth, you were lucky to have such a child in the first place.
No son of the divine is made only to die so young. She speaks to the floor, but there is bite behind her words. Give me this, this and this alone.
I have already fulfilled my debt to you, Thetis. There is anger is the great god's voice. She winces, but does not balk.
Then I shall be indebted to you, mighty father. Submission tastes bitter on her tongue, she swallows her pride nevertheless.
Very well. Lightning crackles, the skies weep. Very well.
She dips, and flees as though the floor beneath her feet burns.
You can't bring one back without the other. The goddess speaks, her voice of chiming bells, her words of honeysuckle. She enjoys this much more than the others, she sits a little straighter, listening to the pleading of the shades. The divine form of lust smiles with the cruelty of a carrion bird. They are bound, even in death.
“Please. Stop this.”
Very well, very well.
The rain screams their miseries for them as they are ripped apart in a flash of light.
"If you forget everything else about me, please remember this. I walked down that street and I never looked back and I love you. I love you. I love you so much that I shall hate you for ever for today."
-John Fowles, “The Magus”
tw: domestic violence, mentions of child abuse, unhealthy means of dealing with grief, gendered slurs, biracial slurs
this chapter contains racial slurs and some brief racism, the things menoitius says do not reflect my opinions and don't worry he'll get an eventual ass-kicking i hate him so much
//edit: 7/22/16, if you come back and wonder where all the chapters went, i decided to have the entirety of this first "part" in one chapter !! im sorry if this causes any confusion but it's neater this way ! i lov you all
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The water is cold against his skin, the salt of the air already firmly crusted into Patroclus's hair. The sun is brutal, pounding against the bared skin of his back, the rocks beneath him hot to the touch. But he stays that way, crouched over the edge, one arm dangling into the ocean, using his forefinger to trace patterns into the waves.
Ships are rising from the skyline, little black dots slowly rolling into view. His father is on one of those ships. Patroclus tries to swallow the feeling that crawls up his throat with that thought. It doesn't work.
His mother is inside somewhere, listening to the singer she has hired or caring for the litter of kittens born just last week from the stray behind the kitchen. He doesn't want to think of what his father will do when he finds out about the animals she'd taken into their keep in his absence. At first it was a dove with a mangled foot, then a hungry dog, now an entire litter. The staff had remained politely quiet about it, but there is no doubt in Patroclus's mind that his father would not take kindly to the idea. No doubt in his mind that his mother's punishment, somehow, would befall him as well. They always did.
Menoitius is a cruel man. Even at the age of twelve, Patroclus is able to understand that much. A cruel man with harsh words and an even harsher hand—you learn how to tread softly around men like him, and even that wouldn't save you.
The leather soles of his shoes are warm with the heat of the black rock beneath him, Patroclus drags four fingers through the water, watching as the ripples scattered in his wake. Sometimes, he dreams he is a giant. Tall enough to stomp entire cities to smithereens beneath his feet, brave enough to face his fears with the same sort of stony expression that had been permanently fixed on Menoitius's face from the moment Patroclus had been born. He would wake up panting, a cold sweat covering his body at the thought of aspiring to be like his father in those dreams. That is his biggest fear, the one he cannot escape, even in sleep. That is why he is such a disappointment—the fear of becoming Menoitius was larger than the fear of Menoitius himself. Sometimes, when he has thoughts that remind him of something his father might say or do, he kneels in the sand in the midst of the midday heat, lets the grains of rock and shell dig grooves into the thin skin of his kneecaps. Once the heat had been so bad that flesh had blistered—his mother said nothing of it. The doctor called in refused to meet his eyes. He still has some of the scars.
Patroclus licks his lips, squinting out over the lazily rolling waves, shielding his eyes from the sun with a hand at his brow. The ships are growing larger, ant-sized dots have already turned into vaguely ship-like, walnut sized, silhouettes in the harsh afternoon glare—soon they'll be at the docks and his father will come, walking stiffly down the gangplank, smelling of six months at sea and anger. He would take things with his arrival, as he always did.
Gone would be the long morning walks on the beach with Patroclus's mother. Gone would be her laughter, the way she smiles at the sound of music—Menoitius hates the sound of the bard, “foolish caterwauling” he always called it. Gone the bright happiness that fills the halls of the manor in his absence. Gone gone gone—all of it. All. Of. It.
He returns that evening. Patroclus hides in his room until a servant beckons him to the solar. he abandons the tin horse he's been fiddling with on the floor, the march up the winding staircase spent swallowing the same feeling he'd been trying to quell on the beach. It was bigger now, wrapping around his windpipe, squeezing and heavy, impossible to rid.
Menoitius sits at his desk, the quill's tip moving in beautiful arcs as he writes in his scrawling hand across the array of documents scattered about his desk. He doesn't look up, even when Patroclus closes the door quietly behind himself. Patroclus knows to wait, hands clasped behind his back, chin stuck high in the air, but he keeps his gaze stuck firmly to the floor. Direct eye contact always earns a scathing remark and a pressing feeling against his bladder—it is physical reactions like that which prove Menoitius's accusations of cowardice true. What child feels the need to wet themselves when looking at their father? Not proper sons, nor daughters for that matter. Proper children knew the line between respect and fear. Proper children don't fear as greatly and wholly as Patroclus. Patroclus has never been a proper child.
“We were successful in our journey,” Menoitius's voice is low, powerful, nothing like Patroclus's—he always takes after his mother in that respect. “One-hundred and fifteen slaves made it to the New World—an impressive number. Today should be a celebration, if anything.”
The halls would remain silent. The air cold. Patroclus's father's definition of a celebration is not the festive type.
“We caught a rat, on our way. The little bastard that's been going around sinking our ships, trying to free the slaves,” Patroclus barely has a grasp on what his father is trying to tell him. He nods anyway, he knows that much, to pretend that he knows what Father is saying. “He's being kept in the basement—I know how Clysonymus loves his adventures.” Suppressing the urge to shiver at the boy's name, Patroclus adjusts his stance. The son of his father's business partner has been staying with them for a month at the most, the boy has a bitter face. Patroclus does not like him yet finds himself trailing after him on all of his “adventures”, as his father puts it. “Keep the boy away from there, until we ship that rat back off to London. If he gets anywhere near the prisoner, the punishment will fall on your head.” Menoitius signs whatever document he's been mulling over with a graceful sweep of his quill. “Got it, boy?” It was always “boy” with him, the man never calls him son, or simply “Patroclus”. Just boy.
The last remnants of warmth the sun had given him is drained from his body as Patroclus forces his eyes from the floor to meet the gelid gaze of Menoitius. The pressure in his abdomen worsens.
“Y-yessir,” he speaks so quickly the words are slurred, blending into one mess of a word. He lets his eyes shut with his mistake, his heart skipping a beat.
“What was that?” He doesn't need his sight to know that Menoitius has frozen in place, hand poised mid-air, shoulders set back. Patroclus feels the ground sway beneath him. Balling both his hands into fists he forces his eyes open, trying to stare his father directly in the eye as he clears his throat.
“Yes. Sir.” He attempts to quell the shaking of his voice with a sharp bite of the inside of his cheek between the words, leaving a metallic tang in his mouth.
He sees his father take a deep breath, cold eyes looking him up and down—the disappointment is undeniable. It’s in the set of his jaw, the way his nostrils flare with disgust. Clysonymus had told him how Menoitius prayed day and night in their family's chapel on the day of Patroclus's birth, for him to survive the night after he was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, for his mother to survive after losing so much blood. For his family not to disown him for marrying an Egyptian woman.
God blessed him with what he prayed for. Then blessed him with a simple son and a barren wife. Then blessed him with bitterness and cruelty. Menoitius has always said that the day Patroclus came into this world was the day his life fell to ruin.
Another big breath from Menoitius before he dips his head, the simplest motion sending a wave of relief through him. Patroclus scurries out the door before the man has time to change his mind.
His first mistake, he realizes, is telling Clysonymus about the prisoner before telling him of his father's warning. Because as soon as the word “prisoner” then “basement” leave his mouth, the pudgy boy has an iron grip around his wrist and is chattering on about meeting a “real-life pirate” and how Patroclus is just being a “little cunt” and how “his father was just trying to scare him about the whole punishment thing anyway”. To which Patroclus wants to respond that Menoitius never makes empty threats, but he doesn't like the way Clysonymus kept calling him a cunt, so he doesn't.
That is how he finds himself sneaking around his father's guards after dinner, nervously trailing after Clysonymus or, well, more like chasing after the gas lantern the boy holds high in the air. He's heard stories of the rats down here, how years ago a serving girl forgot her child when she went to fetch ale for his grandfather. When she came back there was nothing but bone. The slightest twinge of pity for the prisoner crackled in Patroclus’s chest—the only thing that had deterred the vermin was the light.
All the more reason to stick to Clysonymus. He thinks grimly as they make their way down the second flight of stairs. It is hot down here—even hotter than it is outside, muggy, an almost oppressive weight on their lungs. Clysonymus keeps talking about the pirate stories his Nan had told him when he was young, saying something about Blackbeard as he practically skips down the stone steps.
“He died in 1718, Patroclus! That was only twenty years ago!” Clysonymus always sounds so much happier when he tells his stories. At any other time he always has that sort of biting abuse in his voice that Patroclus doesn't like. “Twenty years. That means our fathers were alive when he was around!”
He stops suddenly, and Patroclus grabs onto the railing to keep himself from smashing into the boy. Clysonymus swivels around, lantern still thrust high above their heads.
“Do you think the man your father captured is gonna be like Blackbeard?” The boy's voice shakes with a mixture of fear and excitement. Patroclus wishes he could share the same exhilaration.
He thinks about his answer too long, and by the time he opens his mouth to speak, Clysonymus has turned around and is back to bounding down the steps, bringing the light with him. Patroclus scrambles to keep up.
To say the cellars are dark is to put it lightly. Without a light of his own, the sublevels under his father's manor are pitch-black to the very meaning of the word. It is here that Menoitius keeps the wares for his travels, to be traded for the slaves when he takes his ship to Africa. Sacks filled with coffee and sugar, still fresh off the boat that had come in earlier that evening, chests stuffed full to bursting with textiles or iron or menacing weapons that Patroclus hopes he'll never have to lay a finger on. And rats, he reminds himself. You can't forget about the rats.
There are also gifts from his father's other merchant friends. Elephant tusks that are taller than both he and Clysonymus combined, pelts of exotic animals, a set of marble statues of old Grecian heroes small enough to fit into the palm of his hand. Patroclus can only catch a glimpse of a man, if you can call it that, with the lower half of a horse before Clysonymus tugs him in the other direction. It takes a minute for him to flex out the burning that lingers in his fingertips. He isn't exactly sure why.
Most of these things, he knows, would stay down here to rot—like the painting of a naked woman stretched out in a bed of silks, the books that are stacked in dusty piles on either sides of them. Some were clearly gifted for Patroclus, a wooden sword, iron soldiers, a pair of dice carved of whale bone—all things his father had chosen to hide down here for reasons unknown.
Clysonymus barely takes notice of anything, just pushes past whatever gets in his way. He knows where they were keeping the prisoner after skipping dinner to harass the staff into telling him, he vaguely knows the direction they should be going—the only reason he even brought Patroclus along with was to help him navigate. Patroclus doesn't know whether or not to tell him that he's never been down here before, but the fear of Clysonymus's judgement keeps his mouth shut. The boy, vicious words and all, is the closest thing he's ever had to a friend. As sad as that fact was, Patroclus has only had the company of his mother's maids, who come and go as fast as he could blink.
“Who goes there?” A second light materializes from behind a stack of textiles with the booming voice, sending both the boys into an abrupt halt. It is one of his father's men, a sailor, by the looks of him. His voice is raw with months at sea, abrasive, overflowing with the effects of smoke and hard liquor. Clysonymus lowers his own lantern and cautiously takes a step back, standing behind Patroclus as the man approaches. He feels the blood drain from his face and tries to step back with Clysonymus—earning him a shove at the back from the boy, forcing him to stumble forward. The sailor narrows his eyes at the two, studying them in the light of his lantern. Patroclus's heart pounds against his ribs as the man's face splits into a broken toothed smile. “Oi! Archie, come 'ave a look 'a this!” The sailor calls over his shoulder, taking two lumbering steps towards them—the boys scatter backwards in response. The man laughs at that. “Archie! It's Cap’n Menoitius's whelp, the boy he's always goin’ on about!”
A second head peers out from around the stack. The other sailor doesn't share the same interest as his partner, glances at the boys, grunts, then disappears back around the bend. The first man laughs under his breath and turns back to Clysonymus and Patroclus.
“Patroclus, right?” He juts his chin, motioning to the smallest of the boys. “Ya don't hafta be afraid, li’l one. I won't lay a finger on ya, swear on me mum's grave.” There's that smile again. Patroclus doesn't like his smile—it looks like someone had taken his mouth to a hammer. Multiple times.
He swallows and nods slowly. “Yessi—“ he catches himself. If only it were this easy with father. “Yes, sir.”
The man laughs at that, his laugh is nicer then his smile. Loud, from the belly. “An' polite as a lady, Archie! D'ya hear that, he called me a sir. All nice an' fancy like too.”
“Shut your fuckin' mouth and send them on their merry way” The second man, Archie apparently, doesn't have the heavier accent the first sailor sports. “Before you get the two of us lynched—an' stop callin' me that.”
“S'pose you pups wanna see the prisoner, huh?” Patroclus glances at Clysonymus, hoping the boy will answer for him. He doesn't. His face is as ashen as Patroclus's own. “Aw, don' mind ol' Archie—“
“My name's Archagoras ya fuckin' arsehole!” The sailor laughs at the anger in his friend's voice.
“Well then, don' mind ol' Archagoras, he just misses 'is lady friend an' we haven't been able t' get much sleep. Yer pa likes t' run his men dry, tha’s for sure,” another laugh to assure the jab was taken in good humor. “Pays well though, gotta give 'im that.” He shakes his head, still smiling. “The only reason you two must've come down here is t' see the prisoner. Feisty lil fucker that one, bit a chunk of Archie boy's ear off when we tried t' wrestle him down here.”
“I'll bite a chunk'a your ear off if you don't shut the fuck up.”
Another from-the-belly laugh. “You boys wanna see the prisoner now, do ya?”
Patroclus glances back at Clysonymus. His eyes are wide—the fear inlaid in his features bringing a sort of grim satisfaction to him. For once, Patroclus is the one who had to have courage. For once, it is not him that is the coward. Patroclus took a deep breath and squares his shoulders, ducking his head in a nod. “Yes, sir.” The sailor—Patroclus realizes he never caught the man's name but feels it would be rude to ask for it now—motions for them to follow. He walks back around the stack of crates and bundles of fabric, both he and Clysonymus scrambling to keep up with his long strides. They round the corner and halt abruptly at the entrance of the small alcove, both seeing the metal bars and the blood on the floor at the same time. It smells of rot and earth and Patroclus bites the inside of his cheek again to keep the nausea down, unable to tear his eyes away from the dark form huddled in the back of the… cell wasn’t the correct word. It was much too small for that.
A cage. He realizes with the quickening of his heart. That's what it is, a cage. Meant for keeping animals, barely big enough for Patroclus to stand comfortably in, a cage. Patroclus winces as the sailor kicked the metal bars with the toe of his boot, glancing over to where Archagoras lies in the cot pushed against the far wall, the lantern the man has placed on the low sitting crate he'd been using as a card table cast a dim glow over the small alcove. Barely illuminated, the boy in the cage moans, curling into himself even further, the light only giving him the barest suggestion of features. His chest is bare, just a swath of soiled bandages binding a wound that ran from center of his chest up and under his left armpit by the looks of the almost black blood that managed to seep through the cotton.
“Oi! You!” The sailor's voice is less kind now, his grin looks more sinister in this light. “Wake the fuck up—ya got visitors, pretty boy.”
And he is just that. A boy. Maybe a year or two older then Patroclus himself, looking so small curled into the farthest corner of the cage, his chest moving in rapid breaths, one eye peeling open and immediately squinting as the sailor brings the lantern closer to the cage. Blinking rapidly, the boy pushes himself up with one arm, eyes clouded with fever, takes one look at the man holding the light before his eyes narrow further, this time in a look of disgust.
The sailor shouts a curse as the prisoner spits on his shoes, a foul mixture of saliva and blood that lands with an audible splat on the leather of the man's boots. When the sailor kicks the cage again, this time so forcefully it actually jolts backwards a little, the prisoner falls to the floor, giving a grunt when the arm that is supporting him collapses.
His right eye is bruised, the skin at the bridge of his nose split open and weeping. He coughs with a wince and pulls himself up again, using the bars of the cage to support himself. Even battered and beaten, the boy's beauty struck Patroclus in a cold wave. The green of his eyes, burning with defiance even in his emaciated state, the way he pushes back the golden strands of hair that fell in front of his face. His ragged breathing held strength, a kind of pent-up anger that should have belonged to a cornered beast, not a boy of thirteen.
It is now that the boy looks beyond the sailor. It takes him a moment to focus, eyes still blazing with green fire as his gaze locks with Patroclus's own. Emotions flash over the boy's features faster then he can catch. Recognition. Confusion. Fear. Hope.
His name rolls of the tongue of the stranger and it feels like he has words at the tip of his tongue that he can not recognize—in a language he cannot recognize. His vision constricts, his chest feels as though someone had taken a hammer to each rib. He can't place why. Patroclus stands there, frozen.
The boy presses himself to the bars, eyes wide, voice breaking with desperation. One hand grips the bars, the other reaching through the cage, grasping at the air. “Patroclus.” His name comes in a breath of hopeless abandon, slipping past the split lips of the stranger with the fluidity of silk.
He spoke the word like a song. The thought comes from nowhere. Patroclus still cannot move. A prayer.
“Oi!” The sailor uses the baton strapped to his hip to smash the boy's fingers against the cage. There is a crunching sound, like gravel underfoot, and Achilles is screaming, stumbling backwards, clutching now broken fingers to his chest. Patroclus's heart lurches, he didn't know why he gave a name to the stranger's face. “Get the fuck back, pretty boy.” The sailor's words carry the venom the boy uses to snarl, upper lip drawing upwards in a grimace that belongs on the face of a wolf. The sailor raises his baton again, this time in warning, and the boy roars.
He rolled onto his side to face me. A stray lock of gold fell half into his eyes; he blew it away. “My name is Achilles.”
In a haze, Archagoras grabs both Clysonymus and Patroclus by the shoulders, forcing them away from the cage and the screaming boy and the light. Patroclus barely remembers stumbling up the stairs behind the man, barely remembers being led home with Archagoras's thickly calloused hand wrapped tightly around his bicep. Patroclus can still hear the boy's anger, loud, powerful, even when the doors slam shut behind him.
Later, Clysonymus would remark how his father's men look more like the pirates in his nan's stories then the prisoner did. Patroclus has to swallow the bile that gathers in his throat before he can manage a weak reply.
Why is HE here? Her anger is fresh, dripping from every throaty word that leaves her gash-like lips. This was not what I asked for, this was not part of father's promise.
Players in the game, dear Thetis. The second goddess's head tilts, the barest suggestion of a challenge. As are the others, just players in the game.
My son's life is not a game. Thetis doesn't dare strike her, but oh how she wants to.
You sure have made it out to be. The goddess strokes her own hair, twisting the strands through porcelain fingers. She was born of the sea as Thetis was. She is not cold, she still held a warmth that had been taken from Thetis long ago.
His hands against her skin. The way he gripped her hair, pulling and pulling and never letting go no matter how much she screamed. Her scalp burned for days after.
Her eyes soften. Thetis hates her even more for that. Didn't you want him to be immortal?
In the hearts and minds of men, yes. I cannot fulfill my duty to my child if he is… distracted.
There is silence, and then: The boy does not remember Aristos Achaion, if that makes you feel any better. Your son remembers everything, but the boy does not.
The air leaves Thetis's lungs in a weak sound that tastes like salt and granite and defeat.
She turns and flees for the second time, because no. No. That's not what she wants at all.
There is a storm two nights later. Bright, fierce, reminding him of the boy’s eyes, how Patroclus somehow managed to put a name to his face, how he had recognized Patroclus almost immediately. He's been having unnatural dreams since that night, ones that he couldn't exactly remember but left odd feelings once he woke up to the morning sun. A sweet, yet tart taste on his tongue. A fire roaring in his belly. The feeling of sand rubbing at the bottoms of his feet. They are… comforting, in the oddest sense of the word.
That comfort does not follow him as he wakes for the second time. The wind outside screams against the windowpanes, the ocean's growling almost drowned out by the rain. Patroclus wraps the quilt one of his mother's maids had sewn for him a little tighter around his body and closes his eyes, wincing with every crack of thunder. He tries to focus on his breathing instead of the darkness of the room, or the faint sound of raised voices coming from his parents’ room below him. Underneath the sound of the rain he thinks he hears the shattering of glass. A dismayed cry. Patroclus presses his face into the pillow.
He likes to think that before his birth his mother used to fight back. Stare Menoitius right in the eyes as he yelled at her, scream against his blows. Before he stole the flame within her, before Patroclus came into this world blue in the face and silent, his mother was as fierce a warrior as the ones in Clysonymus's stories. Now, every time his father hits her, she bows into the blows the same way the palm trees outside his window bow into the wind. She doesn't dare look him in the eye. Patroclus learned most of his habits from her, how to steady himself before Menoitius’s anger, how to hide his fear. To always keep your hands clasped behind, to hide the shaking. Patroclus learned from example. The habits they adopted were what kept the two of them alive.
The storm rolled on, every crack of lightning and boom of thunder sending him jumping in his bed, pulling the quilt tightly around him. If it was serious enough, one of his mother's maids would rouse him and they'd go to the storm cellar. One of his first memories was in that small space, pressed up against a goat and his wet nurse. His mother wouldn't stop wringing her hands, she'd flinch every time the lantern swung, her own anxiety floating about her in an almost tangible cloud. Even with his mother's fear thick in the air, Patroclus managed to snuggle into the big, warm, arms of his wet nurse and fall asleep to her softly hummed songs. He couldn't have been more than two, three at the most. He doesn’t remember his father being there.
When sleep comes, it is in an ocean of black--dreamless, save for a pair of green eyes looking down at him. It feels more like an old memory then a dream.
Patroclus wakes with hunger nipping at his belly and rolls out of bed. Sitting at the edge of his mattress, he rubs the slumber from his eyes. For a moment he stays there and watches the sky through the window, the sun just barely creeping from the horizon, staining the clouds a deep pink. The beach still holds the aftermath of the night's storm, mounds of seaweed and driftwood piled upon the shoreline, small cliffs surfacing where the waves had eaten away at the first few layers of sand. The palm trees sway into the wind, serene.
He pushes himself off the bed, rubbing a hand through his hair before padding across the room to his wash basin. The water is cold against his skin, wakes him up for real this time. Patroclus wipes his face down with a towel and looks into the mirror, a gift from his mother. He traces the features of the lion's head, the golden feline perched at the top of the frame, one paw held gingerly in the air, mouth parted in the beginnings of a snarl. The top two corners of the golden frame supported two does, both heads tilted upwards, turned away from the lion crouched in the center, their necks fading into the carved baroque ornament. His favorite parts of the piece are the ones that took a while to find--like the cupid's head, hidden in the center of the rose decorating the base of the mirror, parallel to the lion. Patroclus traces the child's features with a feather-light touch, the pads of his fingers dipping into the faintest detail of the cherub's eye, his cheeks, the slightest suggestion of a button nose. His mother had given it to him because it reminded her of her childhood, in Italy. Patroclus took a shaking breath and looked in the mirror.
Two wide brown eyes stare back at him, eyelashes clumped together, his messy curls wet with water his towel hadn’t caught. He'd gotten his complexion from his mother, a deep olive that freckled profusely when he spent too much time in the sun. His nose was his mother's as well, hooked and slightly crooked at the bridge, separating two dark eyes. It suits her face nicely, but on Patroclus it is…
He averts his eyes before he can think any further. Don’t think about that. He scolds himself, dressing quickly. Thinking like that doesn’t bring any good to anyone. This is why he avoids mirrors. He only keeps this one in his room because he fears the look on his mother's face if she noticed its absence. He takes a deep breath as he tugs his shoes on, spurred out the door by the growling of his stomach.
He is halfway down the stairs when he hears the scream.
It’s shrill, piercing through the old wood of the house. Coming from his father's room. Patroclus's stomach drops. Run. The voice is not his own, it is the barest whisper in his ear. He feels cold, the hairs on the back of his neck rising. He runs. He wishes he didn't. He wishes he'd turned back to his room and closed the door.
The door to his father’s room is open, the windows are as well, white curtains lifting with the wind. There's shattered ceramic on the damp carpet, a toppled table. Four wildflowers lie on the floor, their petals bent back, crushed underfoot. There is a girl, kneeling over the woman that lies in the middle of the floor, splayed out on the carpet like God himself had thrown her down from heaven. She's a serving girl. It's the first thought that pops into his head, he doesn't know why he thinks that when all he can do is stare at the wildflowers on the carpet. The carpet. The blood soaked into the carpet. The bruises on the body’s neck. The serving girl notices him then, looking over her shoulder with tears in her eyes. She's cradling the woman's head in her lap. When she recognizes him she drops the woman’s head and abruptly rises on shaking legs, her hands come away bloody. He thinks he says something, but he can't move from where he is and he can't see anything but the woman on the floor because—
And he can't breathe and he can't breathe and he can't breathe.
The girl is trying to come towards him, to block his view. Her hands are shaking, some strands of ink-black hair falling into her face. Her skin is a deep mahogany, beautiful if not for the stains on her hands, the way her voice warbles as she says his name. She's maybe five years older than he is, new to the house but kind enough in heart to take to her duties with a smile. Her name starts with a B he thinks, full of warmth, like her laugh. Patroclus would probably be able to remember if his mind wasn’t racing with thoughts that flew by too quickly for him to understand what was happened. She shifts slightly in the doorway, kneeling down so she is eye-level with him, placing both hands on his shoulders and speaking slowly to him. She's just as horrified as he is, though she's able to conceal her panic better than he ever could.
She's trying to talk him out of the room, to walk him backwards, on her knees. He can still see over her shoulder.
His mother's body is pale, one outstretched arm with curled fingers. Her nails are bitten down to nubs, as they always were. Her hair fanned around her head in a dull brown halo. Her eyes are open. He can’t breathe. Her irises are clouded and her hair is so limp and she looks so lifeless. There are bruises around her throat and he can’t breathe and she isn't breathing. Patroclus thinks he might be screaming--he can't tell, because all he can see is her and her eyes and her lips and the bruises around her throat and oh God oh God oh God.
He feels sick. He thinks he retches. All he knows it that the serving girl is pressing both her hands to the sides of his face, trying to force his head up to look at her while he's on all fours. Her mouth moves. He doesn't hear. Patroclus shoves her away and runs.
He's outside. Kneeling on the beach. He can't scream anymore, he's screamed enough. His throat hurts. The sand burns.
Two figures come walking down the sand, it takes a while for Patroclus to realize who they are. He doesn't move, even when Archagoras looks at him then immediately averts his gaze, the shame on his face unmistakeable. The second sailor doesn't glance Patroclus's way. His smile is gone, the look on his face so grim it is hard to believe he’d ever had the capability to smile.
Patroclus watches them, unblinking, as they struggle with the weight of her body between them. Archagoras has her by the shoulders, his companion by her feet. She is bound head to toe in white linen, features shrouded in the fabric, he cannot see her. She doesn't look like his mother, she is too stiff, faceless. No grace or delicacy in the way she has been wrapped.
They carry her to the end of the dock, try to ease her down carefully. Her head bounces against the wood, Archagoras curses and glances over his shoulder to look at Patroclus. The man averts his eyes again, quickly, and murmurs something to his companion. The sailor looks sick, but nods, walking back down the dock with heavy footfalls. For a single, jolting second, Patroclus thinks the man is coming to console him, lead him back to the girl whose name definitely starts with a B. To get him away from the burning sand, and the ocean, and the body wrapped in fabric at the end of the dock. Patroclus almost feels... relieved, because he knows he does not have the strength to get up and walk back to the house himself. Because he knows he doesn't have the courage to watch what is about to happen.
But he passes, keeps walking up the beach and through the tall stocks of grass. Patroclus momentarily loses sight of him, before he returns over the hill, struggling with the weight of the rock he holds with both hands. The sand proves troublesome with this added weight, and it takes the sailor twice as long to reach the dock this time. Archagoras keeps looking from him to Patroclus, but helps carry the load of the rock once the sailor stumbles onto the dock, dropping it next to her body, so Patroclus can only see her feet, her ankles.
They make quick work of securing the weight to her bindings, tying the rope that they knot around the rock to the rope that holds the linen to her. Her body sometimes jostles as they strap her to the weight, assuring she won’t wash up bloated and covered in crabs down the beach by tomorrow morning. They do it well, efficiently, their hands having years of experience tying knots on his father's ships. They both have the same grim expression on their faces as Archagoras pushes his mother’s body into the ocean.
She dangles there for a moment, the rope connected to the rock pulled taught, letting her hover above the waves. It takes their combined efforts to kick the rock over with her. Patroclus closes his eyes and tilts his head to the sun before he can see her hit the water.
Philomela. The wind sings the word against the sand, beautiful, just as she was. Her name was Philomela.
It is dinner, and the house is silent. The servants nervously skirt around him as if he would lash out at any moment. Clysonymus averts his eyes at the table. Good. He thinks, hands still shaking as he plays with the food on his plate. Good.
Patroclus rubs a hand over his face, placing his fork and knife down with the softest clink. It's just him and Clysonymus at the table. His father doesn't dare show his face at the table, preferring to lock himself in the Chapel for the better part of the day then face what he had done. He fears God more than he fears us. He doesn't know how to feel about that, but he's glad that Menoitius isn't there. Patroclus doesn't think he'll be able to look at Menoitius anymore. He doesn't think he'll be able to look at himself after today. His mother's chair is across from Patroclus, a void where she should be sitting. The bouquet of roses obstructing his view of where she would have been with her secret smile that she always threw his way when Menoitius started talking business during dinner. How she'd laugh and joke with the serving girls once his father left the room.
Neither he nor Clysonymus touch the food on their plates after uttering their blessings in quiet voices. The boy next to him leaves halfway through the meal, refusing to meet his eyes when Patroclus looks at him, muttering something about having to use the privy before rushing from the room.
He swallows a spoonful of tasteless broth, ignoring the rolling of his stomach as he forces the soup down. He bites his tongue. He closes his eyes. He sighs, and goes back to pushing cold stew around his bowl while a serving girl rushes to clean Clysonymus's plate before hurrying into the kitchen. He stays a little while longer before excusing himself, trying to ignore the closed door of his parent's room as he drags himself up the stairs.
The bed is cold when he climbs into it, cold when he rolls his quilt around him. Or maybe he's the one who's cold. Patroclus doesn't care. The windows are open and it smells like the sea and all Patroclus wants to do is sleep, dream of brown eyes and a crooked nose and a secret smile when everything was bright and laughing and warm. But he doesn't.
It starts with the feeling of hands on both his shoulders, pushing him backwards. Patroclus expects to feel the resistance of the bed beneath him, but it never comes. He falls instead, landing with a painful thump against something that bites into the small of his back—he opens his eyes, blinking at the sudden, harsh light that floods the room. It isn't your room. It dawns on him with the sinking of the gut, the closing of his throat.
There are four wildflowers in front of him, crushed from his stumble backwards, lying in shards of ceramic, a pool of water rapidly sinking into the carpet beneath them. A toppled table. A scared looking woman with dark eyes and a crooked nose who stands above him, fingers pressed to her mouth in horror, eyes wide and watery. She takes a step back, the open window behind her breathing a sigh of a breeze, causing her nightgown to lift around her, playing in the wind. Her gaze turns from the shattered vase on the floor to Patroclus himself, the lips behind her fingers moving in apologizes that he cannot hear—all Patroclus can hear is the ocean. All he knows is that something happened and his mother was afraid and he needed to go to her.
It’s when he struggles to his feet that he realizes what is wrong. His body is too big, too clumsy. When he looks down, his boots are of heavy black leather, his hands thick with calluses, a circle of silver on the ring finger of his left hand. Menoitius's hands. He knows what's about to happen, but he is immobile in this body, unable to control his own actions. Fear gets stuck in his throat. Menoitius's body lumbers onwards, towards Philomela, fingers curling in and out of fists at his side. Patroclus wants to close his eyes, look away when the inevitable hit comes.
With every step forward, his mother takes one back, her nightgown billowing in the wind, feet soundless against the carpet. Hands still pressed to her mouth, she looks at him. Patroclus stares back, begging her to run, as fast as she can. Menoitius presses onward. They continue this dance, one forward one back, Menoitius flexing his hands at his side, every heavy footfall a death sentence for the woman before him. Ceramic crunches under his feet, the ocean outside rumbles.
When she opens her mouth all there is is air and wildflowers and those dark eyes framed by darker lashes. He reaches for her, and when the back of his hand strikes the soft skin of her cheek (No no no no no. Patroclus wants to scream. No no no no NO. Please stop, please—) they begin to sink into the floor.
Patroclus—or Menoitius, it's hard to tell at this point—paws for something to steady himself as his legs disappear beneath him, swallowed by the wet petals that now surround them. His hand finds purchase in her hair, and he tries to pull her down with him, as they're enveloped in white,purple and pink. Soft as the cherry blossoms his wet nurse sometimes told him—Patroclus? Menoitius? He can't tell anymore—about. They adhere to the skin on contact, half-translucent with the weight of the water they float atop of.
The woman (My mother. He tries to remind himself. But his thoughts are too faint, too quiet. They are drowned out by the feeling of power he gets from her hair in his fist.) struggles, pounding her small hands against his arm. She is lighter then he, doesn't sink as quickly—and she knows this, maybe that was why she was trying her best to get away. He wasn't going to let her. He opens his mouth to scream but he is choked by the flowers and the salt water beneath them, filling his nose and his mouth and flooding into his eyes.
Blinking, he lets go, the strands of hair slipping through his fingers like seaweed. When his eyes finally focus all he can see is the darkness below him and how the light filters through the petals into the water, dappling him like leaves on the forest floor. He watches, mystified, as his lungs empty, bubbles of air rising from his mouth and racing towards the sunlight. He can't see the woman anymore, he thinks, just maybe, she was able to swim back up to the top, before it was too late. (My mother, she was my mother. Even fainter now, the water in his ears clogging his senses.) It is then that he looks down at his feet, no longer clad in heavy leather and silver buckles. They're the feet of a boy, small; frail, almost. He (Patroclus now, he knows unquestionably that he is Patroclus) blinks repeatedly, trying to make out what is clasped around his ankle. It’s cold—colder than the water around him, colder than anything he'd ever touched before.
A hand. The realization jolts through him, panic following soon after. It's a hand. Cold and white as marble, circled around his ankle in an iron grip. He he tries to kick the hand free, blinking as he recognizes the woman’s face almost immediately. Mother. He wants to scream, but his lungs resist, two small bubbles floating lazily from his mouth. Mother, I'm here. It can’t be Philomela, her face is too pale, the bruises on her neck a deep purple, petals lifting from her hair as she drags him downwards. Her features are contorted in a look of savage hatred he'd never seen on a human being before. She's pulling him down and the more Patroclus looks, the more he sees. Really sees. The thousands of hands, reaching up from the inky black beneath them, fingers rolling in the current like seagrass. Panic settles in. I am not him! He wants to scream. Let go of me—I am not him! Only bubbles escape his mouth, bubbles and empty water. His lungs ache.
There is a splash, Patroclus cannot hear it, but he feels it, the surface rippling with the force at which the person had hit the water. Achilles. The name bubbles into his mind and floats away in the same lazy way the breath had left his chest. He cranes his head upwards, still uselessly trying to claw his way up. He feels his mother's grip tighten on his foot, which forces fear to fold around his windpipe, forces him to kick harder, to writhe against the water and the weight dragging him down. If she pulls him into the darkness, he knows it will just be that for the rest of time. Darkness. Solitude. Oblivion. He can not think of a worse fate. So he tilts his head upwards and fights harder than he ever fought in his life. Achilles, help me.
His mother's hands on his ankles, the thousands of other hands outstretched, beckoning him to the darkness. Achilles reaches from the surface of the water, straining against the waves like he'd strained against the bars of his cage, begging around the water in his mouth for Patroclus to reach for him. Petals stick to Achilles's hair, and all Patroclus can think as he is pulled down by the hands, is how beautiful the boy's rage makes him. Flowers in his hair. Fear in his eyes. Patroclus inhales a lung full of salt water and lets himself sink.
And everything is silent and loud and dark and golden, all at the same time.
Patroclus wakes up screaming, nails clawing at his throat with such force they leave red gouges in their wake. His cheeks are wet and it's the first time he's cried in four years, so he sobs with his entire body. He shouts every obscenity he knows into his pillow while his hands shake so fiercely that he can barely hold onto the quilt he's tangled himself up in. All he can do is scream and sob until the panic flees his body, but it refuses to leave. It stays, lingering in his rapidly beating heart, in the red scrapes on his neck and chest, the rolling of his stomach.
The quilt falls to the floor as he stumbles from the bed, knees too weak to support him. He almost falls, narrowly catching himself on the edge of his washbasin. Water sloshes over the rim and the metal bowl tumbles to the floor with a loud clang. Patroclus just kicks it to the side and stares at his reflection, raking both hands through his messy hair. He pulls at the strands, as if the sharp tugs of pain from his scalp will steady his breathing, looking at himself and, in turn, looking at Menoitius. He can't bare it for more than a few seconds before flinging the window open and shoving two quivering fingers down his throat, retching until only bile hits the back of his tongue. He crawls back into bed; exhausted, hungry, bloated.
When he wakes for the second time that night, it is to a bright light and a soft voice calling his name. A warm hand against his shoulder gives him a sharp shake, sending him scrambling into a sitting position. He shields his eyes with a lifted forearm.
“I'm not going to hurt you.” The voice is hushed, silky, tinged with an accent that he cannot recognize. He has to blink a couple more times before his eyes are able to focus on the face of the girl—the same one from before, who found his mother, B-something. He wants to believe that it's the remnants of his nightmare that makes it impossible for him to remember the rest, but he knows that isn't true. He recoils when he sees the darker shadow moving behind her. Archagoras. A million possibilities whirr through his head, most of them ending with his body being thrown into the ocean by the night's end. He instinctively recoils. The girl leans forward, placing the lantern she held on his bedside table.
“Patroclus—please, we're here to help you.” She glances over her shoulder, nervously chewing her lip. Archagoras looks just as paranoid as the girl, he shifts from foot to foot, crossing then uncrossing his arms, his gaze pointedly avoiding Patroclus’s own.
The girl is gnawing on her lip, eyes flicking rapidly from him to the door. “You can trust us, we want to get you out of here before...” She leaves the threat hanging in the air between them, taking another shaky breath and lays a gentle hand against his. Patroclus resists the urge to snatch his arm away at the feather-light touch. “Patroclus,” his name comes out blocky in her accent. Beautiful in its own way. “You have to trust us. We're trying to help you.” She licks her lips, and casts one last brief glance at the doorway. “If you believe me, meet us at the entrance to the cellar in fifteen minutes—change into clothes you can travel comfortably in, don't bring anything else with you. Got it?”
He doesn't know why, but he nods. A look of relief floods over her features, she smiles shakily. “Good.” With more assurance this time. “Good.” she reaches forward to give him a pat on the shoulder before standing, taking the lantern with her. Archagoras follows her out the door, closing it behind him soundlessly. Patroclus pulls the sweat-soaked quilt away from his body, blinking away the hazy sleep from his eyes, his mouth still bitter from the after effects of his dream. With a deep breath, he pushes himself off the bed and gets dressed. He lifts the mirror from where it hangs on the wall and places it face-down on the table.
The cellar is colder at night. The girl orders him to take his boots off to quiet his footsteps and Patroclus obeys without hesitation. The steps are ice beneath his feet as they silently plod down the same path he and Clysonymus had tread three nights before. He trails behind the two, not caring about where the lantern's light stops and the darkness begins. Numb, maybe, is the best way to describe it. Maybe a low ache at the pit of his belly, but that is all he felt. All he can feel. He isn't sure if that is a good thing or not.
Archagoras and the girl talk in hushed whispers, every so often one of them glances over their shoulders to see if Patroclus is still following, then return to their bowed head conversation.
“Are you sure that this is going to work?” Archagoras's voice is even lower than usual, barely a gravelly rumble. “I only told Otus what you wanted me to tell him, nothing about the boy being involved in this as well.” Otus, the other sailor's name then. Patroclus stepped over a small crack in the stone, only realizing then that he'd trailed too far behind, the dim circle of the girl's light bouncing a few feet in front of him. He thinks he hears the sharp squeaking of a rats coming from behind a crate they pass. He should be surprised by how little he cares.
“Peleus practically pisses gold. He'll give you more than Menoitius ever would,” the girl sounds like she takes pride in the fact. A certain fondness in the way she speaks. “If you were to give him back his son, I'm sure he'd be more than thankful.”
“And we'll get the reward? All of it?”
“All of it.” She speaks firmly. “All I want is for the boy to make it out of there with him,” she looks back, eyebrows knitting together when she meets Patroclus's eyes. He looks back down at his feet and keeps walking, the girl sighs quietly before continuing. “Knowing he will be safe now is… It's reward enough.”
The tense silence that spans between them makes Patroclus think that Archagoras has a lot more questions that he knows the girl won't answer. The bulky man just grunts after a while and falls behind her as the path grows narrow.
The alcove is darker then he remembers, the cages barely illuminated by the dim flickering of the light. The sailor, Otus, sits on an overturned crate, a deck of cards scattered before him. His eyes are dark with intoxication, holding a brown bottle tightly in one hand, and he sneers at Archagoras when they round the corner.
“So you're still gonna fuckin' do this?” Patroclus can smell the rum in Otus's breath from where he stands at the entranceway. Archagoras gets a look on his face like he just swallowed something bitter, but pretends he doesn't hear the man as he steps around the crate. Otus's hand darts out, grabbing onto the edge of Archagoras's shirt faster than a man that drunk should be able to react. “The man killed his bitch of a wife after she shoved 'im a bit. What do y'think he'll do to us if he finds out we helped release his fucking prisoner?” His words are so slurred Patroclus has a hard time understanding him
“You're saving the lives of two boys, Otus,” the girl speaks as if she was trying to reason with a child. He glances over his shoulder, narrowing bloodshot eyes to help them focus through the cloud of liquor dilating his pupils. When he recognizes Patroclus, he whips his head back around to stare and Archagoras in disbelief.
“You've got to be fuckin' kidding me.”
“And what of it? Menoitius would get his hands on him in one way or another—she says she won’t give us the gold if the whelp isn't included in the deal,” Archagoras tries to shove Otus off him, though his attempts prove futile as the man just tightens his grip around the fabric. Otus’s second hand comes up and grasps Archagoras’s collar, tugging him down so they are eye-level. Archagoras stares at the man evenly, a challenge.
“An' what are ya doin this for, ol Archie boy?” Otus had to look up to meet Archagoras's eyes, the hand curled around his collar trembling. He thinks Archagoras might kill the man if Otus keeps going on like this. The girl shifts uncomfortably beside him, but doesn't interrupt.
“Redemption.” He speaks the word quietly, though it is so weighted with guilt Otus drops his hand and shakes his head, slumping back down on the crate and covering his eyes with one hand. He laughs, and it is void of humor.
“You think, after all we've done, that saving two boys will redeem you?” Patroclus doesn't like the way Otus laughs, it's cruel, his shoulders shake too much when he does it. “One little white boy and a mutt—” Patroclus winces but stands his ground “—will redeem you for all you've done under that psychopath's orders—under that logic, I should be a fuckin' saint for letting you go through with this. You're doing it for the gold. Don't deny it.” Otus runs his tongue over his teeth, nodding to himself, glancing at Patroclus and the girl standing next to him. “Don't you dare try to deny it.”
Archagoras just pushes past the man and grabs the keys to the cage from the peg on the wall, exchanging a look with the girl before he disappears into the cell to haul the boy out. Otus scowls into his bottle before taking another long swallow, wincing as he slams it back down onto the crate. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and refuses to meet Patroclus's eyes. The girl rushes to help Archagoras pull the boy from of the cage, setting her lantern on the floor. Archagoras has to carry him like a child when they realize one of his arms looks to be broken at the elbow. He smells of rot and fever. The girl's face grows grim as she learns of the extent of the boy’s injuries, but she doesn’t say anything.
Otus spits on their shoes when they walk out, but doesn't try to stop them. The cellar is just as cold on their way out, but there is no hushed conversation. Just the soft wheezing of the broken boy with green eyes wrapped in Archagoras's arms.
The water is still as the girl prepares the skiff, she's in a pair of men's pants that she rolled up to her knees and a men's tunic with the sleeves ripped off. She works by the light of the moon, saying something about how the lantern would call too much attention to them, as she hauls a day's worth of supplies into the bottom of the boat. A thick fog sits low on the water, the half-moon perched high in the sky only casting a faint light over the beach. Patroclus knows that if he turns around, the manor will be a dark silhouette against the mountains behind it, a single light coming from the chapel.
The girl motions for Archagoras to come forward first, stepping back to let him climb into the boat and lay the boy down. Once Archagoras has climbed back out she nods at Patroclus to go in. He obliges without hesitation, accepting the unlit lantern the girl hands him from the dock.
“Once you paddle out past the rocks,” she points to the horizon. “The current should take you right to where Peleus has his boat docked. Just keep heading North East until you hit land, they'll hopefully be able to meet you in between here and the island. When you see the ship—massive thing, called the Serpent's Son, got a figurehead of lady with snakes in her hair—light this lantern and hook it to the bow of the skiff so they know it's you, got it?” Patroclus nods, taking each oar in hand. When he looks up, the girl is still staring down at him, brows knitted, tears on her cheeks. Waves lap at the sides of the boat, the fog enveloping them turning a silvery white under the moon. “You'll be safe with him, Achilles will keep you safe.”
He nods again, tightening his grip on the polished wood. The boy moans and tries to shift, letting out a whimper when his arm falls from his side and hits the burlap next to him.
The girl clears her throat, presses a kiss to her palm and touches her hand to his forehead. The motion is so quick Patroclus is almost sure he'd imagined it until she stands, wiping at her cheeks with the back of her hand. When she speaks, her voice wavers. “Farewell, Patroclus, son of Menoitius, the best of the Myrmidons. Safe travels.”
The horizon is dark and endless when the boy wakes. He does so with a moan, a shuddered breath, trying desperately to struggle into a sitting position with one arm dangling limply at his side. Patroclus glances his way then quickly averts his gaze, dragging his nails against the soft skin of his palm to distract himself from green eyes and gold-spun hair.
All the breath leaves him in a shuddering gasp as he breaks the skin with the force at which he gouges his hand. It feels like he's still in that dream and the boy is at the surface, looking down at him, trying to save him. Patroclus doesn't want to be saved. Patroclus doesn't want to be in the boat but the alternative—staying in that house, with his father—seemed a lot scarier at the time. Now he is stuck, and the boy's eyes feel like a punch in the gut and the way he says his name makes Patroclus want to scream or cry or both.
The waves gingerly lick the sides of the boat, the compass balanced on his lap pointing steadily North East. He focuses on the stinging of his palms instead of the boy's soft breathing.
“Patroclus, I'm—I'm sorry if I've scared you I…”
Please stop. Just please stop talking.
“I don't know… I don't know what's going on, I haven't been able to reach my mother, she hasn't come to me for who knows how long and I…” He breaks himself off to clear his throat. Patroclus pretends like he cannot hear him. “Listen, I… I heard about what happened to… what happened to your mother.” Patroclus can't breathe. No, no, not this. Please don't start talking about this please stop please. “I am… I am so sorry—“
“I don't care who you think you are but don't you dare try to speak to me about my mother.” It comes out harsher than he thought it would, but his biting words have their effect, the boy looks like Patroclus has physically struck him. Good. He grits his teeth and lets go of his palm, blood beading from the four crescent-shaped cuts as soon as the pressure is taken away.
They sit in silence until the sun begins to eat away at the black horizon.
She comes under the cover of night, three days after two boys were found washed up on the shore of a forgotten slaver's island. Three days after two boys were loaded onto a ship and taken far away from blood and screaming and innocent lives lost. She walks in darkness, as she always does, feet barely touching the ground.
Thetis always hated the smell of wet wood, which means she hates visiting her son whenever he went off on one of this voyages. In this life of all lives. The first time Achilles had been so close to her, yet so far. Visits weren't as frequent as they used to be, Achilles rarely ever wanted to see her, not after what she had done. But this time had to be the exception. It was odd, the way a mother can sense suffering in her child. Almost like a weight at the bottom of her stomach, a fire in her chest. Thirteen years after the cycle started again, and on this day—this day of all days, she felt it the most. As though she had rocks in her womb, an animal's maw wrapped around her heart. So she goes to him.
She pushes herself up onto the deck, the weight growing ever-present with every step she takes towards the Captain's cabin. Pausing at the door, she splays her hand against the worn wood, her nail-beds purple with the cold of the sea, the knuckles almost knobbish. Her hands aged faster than she did, the blue-black veins tracing patterns against her inner arms. She shakes her head as if to clear it, pushing through the door without thought as to what might greet her.
A vase, apparently. Exploding just where her head would have been if she didn't step to the left in time. She narrows her eyes, icy expression settling over her features almost immediately. Achilles pants from the exhaustion it took him to fling the piece of ceramic at her head, body going limp, his arm falling to the floor.
“I used the door to appease your foolish little desires from the last time we spoke.” She hates how her heart hurts at the sight of him, one arm weakly hanging off the edge of the bed, half his body tangled in the sheets Peleus had wrapped around him, his exposed upper half flush with the fever stemming from the rot she could sense in him. His pain was her pain. She hates him for that as well. “This form is weak.” He doesn't speak, labored breathing making his nostrils flare, his eyes that of a spooked horse. Wide. Unblinking. “You are a shame to me, like this. What have I told you? Every life, the ones you can remember, that is, I tell you the same things and yet you always make the same foolish mistake.”
Achilles manages a weak: “Mother… please...”
She can't help it. She explodes. “Don't you dare call me that in this state—don't you dare try to appeal to me after… after...” He doesn't flinch, despite her rage, the few steps she'd taken closing the gap between them. She grits her teeth, flexes her hands by her side. “Why do you always go back to the boy? Even when it does this to you? When it does this to him?”
“BECAUSE I AM SELFISH.” He screams, tears in his eyes, upper half jerking upwards with the volume at which he screams the words. Thetis recoils, unaccustomed to her son's anger. Achilles, shocked by his own reaction as well, continues, softer this time. “Because I am selfish and afraid and I don't want to let him go. Not again… not after...”
Thetis stands in the center of the room, the ocean rocking beneath her, Achilles's labored breath filling the space between them. She uses the water puddling at the base of the wall to pull herself into the cold comfort of the watery depths below.
It's five years before he sees his first whale.
They're infamous, on the ship. Signs of good luck, the blessing of the sea to be greeted by one on your maiden voyage. Patroclus wasn't exactly sure if this was still his first voyage as he has never technically left the ship. Every time they docked he always found an excuse to stay in his quarters, books to read, supplies to organize, and numbers to keep. (He'd even begun literacy classes with some of the younger members of the crew, who were not so controlled by pride that they'd sit down and take orders from a 'Captain's Pup' such as himself.) On land there were reminders he never really wanted to face, anyway. People that would force him to look them in the eye. Marble statues of ancient myths. Greed and gold and bitterness. Not on the ship, though. On the ship, Patroclus could spend all day organizing shelves for Machaon, or chasing elusive stores of dried fruits for Peleus's frequent midnight snacks. He's perfectly fine with the mundane, ordinary suited him absolutely fine.
It had taken him almost three years to get to that point. He was angry, when he first arrived. He still isn't exactly sure why. Spent a solid six months scrubbing the deck and oiling the ropes. He liked the heat. The grain of the wood acting to the same effect as the burning sand. Peleus managed to pull him out of that—something about utilizing “skill sets”, mainly his ability to read and write. So he kept the books for a few years, drowned himself so deeply in numbers it was hard to keep up destructive habits.
And of course there was Achilles.
It always seemed to come back to Achilles.
In those three years Patroclus refused to even look at him—out of shame or fear of the feeling of bleak familiarity he felt in his throat every time he so much as glanced his way. Even though Peleus made it sure that Patroclus was seen with the tragedy of his mother, not the tyrannical rule of his father, many of the men on the ship resented Patroclus for Achilles's torture. The shame he felt manifested in anger, in scrubbing the deck until his hands bled and his knees were weak.
The first six months were the worst. A sense of camaraderie (an odd sort of friendship, almost, weighted with something Patroclus was unfamiliar with) was found with the exchange of gifts. Small peace offerings, beginning with an unopened bottle of salve for Patroclus's knuckles places delicately on his pillow. Patroclus returned the favor by leaving an extra fruitcake outside Achilles's door after supper the next night. (Looking back, he never specifically remembers confronting Achilles about the gifts. It was a mutually assured fact it was between the two of them and the two of them alone. The other boys pretended to notice nothing of it.) The first time Patroclus gives Achilles a hand full of dried figs, the golden-haired boy looked at him as if the sky was falling.
Patroclus sometimes got the sense that Achilles was healing from something. That was okay, though. They'd been healing together.
He was the only one on the ship the first time Achilles got drunk. And the second. And the third. Every time they moored it always seemed to end with Achilles stumbling on board hours before the other men would even begin to consider returning from whatever bar or brothel they'd tunneled themselves into, incoherently wasted. Usually nights like that ended with Patroclus rubbing Achilles's back while he dry heaved over the side of ship, the captain's son usually mumbling out a word or two of gratitude between rolls of his stomach. The third time, Patroclus spent the rest of the night reading aloud from a book of ancient myths with Achilles's head cradled in his lap. It's a good memory. One of his favorites.
There was blood, too. A lot of it. Raids on ships planning to treat human life as a commodity, men with cruel faces and even crueler weapons. Patroclus managed to hold his own, more involved with the process of the aftermath, the healing. Men and women and children huddled in groups on the decks. Sometimes they sang songs, as he and Machaon made their rounds, offering water and food and bandages. There was a time when Patroclus recognized a tune—something his mother used to sing to him when he was much smaller, whenever his father wasn’t listening. She would whisper in his ear how it meant to give strength, from mother to child. Her mother sang it to her and then her mother before that. She said she used to know the words before she was sold and taken from her mother’s household. Before she met his father, was what she really meant. Before her voice was stolen.
But it was bloodshed for something good. Bloodshed to save people. He would call it redemption if that didn’t sound so selfish.
So he wakes with the sun swollen and low on the horizon, the men shouting greetings as they dock. The old ship yowls with protest as they drop anchor, securing tar-slicked ropes to the rotting posts, the waves—ever pleasant—lap at the hull weakly. Patroclus pulls himself from his hay-stuffed mattress, waiting until the last pair of footsteps jumped off the main deck before he stands, pulling a tunic over his head, running his hands through his hair in a desperate attempt to neaten it somewhat.
It’s dark by the time Patroclus wanders his way up to the deck. It’s a water-side town, a maze of hastily latched together planks of wood stretching out over the serene waters, all leading to the maw of taverns and brothels and shops that seemed to beckon every sailor but Patroclus. They’d anchored on the outermost dock, the lights of the town just small rectangles and squares of warm orange light against the pitch backdrop of the island’s mountains behind it. The slightest murmurings of rapturous laughter carried across the water easily, the heavy clamor of the early night softened by the distance.
“Do you see them?” Patroclus jumps at the sound, he didn’t realize he wasn’t alone. The voice was familiar enough, though. Achilles. Always Achilles. But the words weren’t slurred—it was too early for him to be back, the other men had just barely left the ship. So that means he stayed--why? For him? The thought is foolish and improbable; he’ll chide himself for it later.
“I thought your father wanted to buy you dinner?” And a girl. Patroclus leaves that part out. He doesn’t know why, he just does. “He told me he was looking forward to it.” He turns, the moonlight casts a blue glow over everything it touches, Achilles’s silhouette bares the slightest silver lining. One hand rests curled around the ship’s banister, his other arm—the one that had been severed at the bicep, lays exposed to the breeze, his sleeveless tunic knotted at the hip. (A bite of guilt, at Patroclus’s side. Your fault your fault your fault. The break had been so bad that not even Machaon could save it. Loose the arm or loose your boy he’d said. Peleus wept for three days after.)
“Come over here and look.” His voice is soft in the way that makes Patroclus think he’d just woken from a dream. He doesn’t know why he thinks these things, or how he thinks he knows exactly what Achilles sounds like after her wakes. It was like hearing that woman sing his mother’s song, like something rising out of the fog after years of being forgotten.
So he follows Achilles to the edge, leans over and looks down on the water with both his forearms draped over the bannister. The water is a rolling plain, stretching out before them on all sides with their backs turned to the island. Then, a second later, the sea erupts, a spout of water shooting through the air with tremendous force, a fin surfacing, then a notched spine. More, then—at least five of them, all dancing together, playing in the moonlight.
Patroclus doesn’t realize he’s grinning like a madman until he turns and sees the same expression on Achilles’s face. He’s laughing and they’re both laughing and everything, for a few moments at least, is so dreamlike Patroclus almost doesn’t believe his eyes. Or his heart. Or the fluttering feeling in his stomach. He doesn’t realize their hands are intertwined until Achilles’s grip tightens around his fingers. As if he’d ever let go.
He looks over his shoulder and there are tears on Achilles’s cheeks. The moon gives them light as they roll down the side of his face, down his jaw. Patroclus stops laughing. “There are people out there that destroy beautiful things.” His voice his rough, eyes dark even though there is a smile on his lips. “I’d like to think… that they know, the consequences of their actions. But they don’t, I don’t think they ever will. I think the ignorance is the worst part.” Patroclus has the feeling they are no longer talking about the ocean. “I had a dream, once. About a whale calf and its mother. I… I don’t remember much of it, but I remember how she sang to her child, how… lonely, it was.” He can envision it if he closes his eyes, so he does—albeit briefly. Backdrop of black, dark yet serene, not sinister like darkness could sometimes be. Gentle downward strokes keeping the two afloat. “I…I think I understand that loneliness. The desire for something that isn’t there.”
“Achilles.” He doesn’t know what to say, so he says his name. When Achilles turns, Patroclus doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything more magnificent.
It’s the melody to a lullaby with the lyrics long forgotten, a tickle at the back of the throat, the familiarity of something without the memories to support it. It feels like… it feels like this, right there, is so much more than just two boys under a sky of black velvet, so much more than just the breath billowing between them. So Patroclus kisses the boy with golden hair and green eyes, pretends like he can remember. Basks in the melody, basks in the itch and the familiarity and the warmth because it’s all he wants.
It’s all he has.
thank you to thedevilyouknownow for suggesting the title "little gay boys and their problems" and thank you gaylabinsky for suggesting the actual title of the fic. they're both glorious , i swear.
also both of them beta'd this and they're the most amazing betas a girl could ask for so thank you <3
Chapter 3: trinity of fears
How many souls have you uprooted? To play this little game of yours? The sea-maid screams to the sky, bound to the waves beneath her.
Again. Her eyes are bright with excitement, could almost be considered feverish if gods could ail as easily as mortals. Again.
Very well. Very well. Lightning laughs, storm clouds sigh.
Two souls sob, cling to one another.
"These are our nights of Gethsemane."
-Albert Camus, The Myth of Sysiphus
it’s called the suffer bus welcome aboard also if anyone disagrees that pat is dudley o'shaughnessy or rami malek i will personally come to your house and kick ur ass b y e
The first time he breaks his knuckles is on another man’s jaw.
Patroclus, nineteen and angry, watches something bleed. Relishes in the fact that it was by his own hand—basks in the roar of the crowd filled with fat white men in their turned collars and sweat stained tuxedos. Because he’s born with the memories of lives that were not his own. Because Thetis took one look at him then scowled. My son takes a mortal bitch to be his mother. Because she disappeared into the lake outside his father’s home after that. Because he had to suffer through this life alone for nineteen long years.
Of every rebirth, the ones he’d been cursed with the memories of at least, they had found each other by this point. Every reunion was either one-sided or ambivalent, every moment of peace soon tarnished by fate or cruel hands or—
What he is doing. What he has done.
He likes to think that the Cape Colony’s heat makes the blood thicken as soon as it hits the air. Before, in this basement of this bar, they were fighting dogs. He saw them hauling a carcass as he climbed down the wooden stairs. A mutt, brown furred, its blood coagulating in the dust his roots his feet in as he takes another swing, fractured metacarpals already forgotten. Before that probably more fighting, or maybe this was the sublevel of someone’s home. Maybe this dark little place had happy memories for someone. Before even that, only earth where his knee comes up to drive into the other man’s stomach. Roots where his black eye develops. Bones of families scattered across his split lip. Before that, where the crowd roars, he was in another place. A different place. Perhaps in another man’s arms—warm, and laughing, and bright.
The other man wrestles him into a chokehold. Patroclus kicks his head back, slams the heel of his foot into his instep, grimaces and struggles for breath and kicks his head back again—feels the other man’s nose break against the crown of his skull, a sticky warmth beginning to run down the back of his neck. Another kick, the back of his foot grinding against the instep now—the man howls, releases him, Patroclus seals his left hand over his right’s fist, bends his elbow, forces it down. He thinks he may have shattered a cheekbone; Patroclus follows the spray of blood from the man’s nose and mouth with his eyes. It lands in a cardinal explosion on the faces of the men pressed against the makeshift wall of the pit.
It lands on a young man, with wild blonde hair, green eyes, and a curvature of the jaw only comparable to David or some other ancient statue crafted from immovable stone. And all Patroclus can think is no. And the young man drags a hand over the blood on his face, examines the way the blood turns orange in color under these gaslights. And Patroclus cannot move, and still he can’t think anything but no or not like this or he can’t see me he doesn’t see me. And the man smiles and Patroclus never thought it could make him so sick to bare witness to something so raw. The light in his eyes shrouded by the roaring crowd or the shared blood on their hands or the dust in the air.
Achilles’s eyes meet Patroclus’s own and there is no recognition there. Achilles’s eyes meet Patroclus’s own and it’s only destroy this for me and Achilles opens his mouth and screams in triumph.
And Patroclus screams back.
Patroclus screams back.
“You’ve won me a large sum of money.” Patroclus refuses to look up from his drink and cradles his broken fist to his chest. “I feel inclined to thank you for that.”
Something Patroclus is learning very quickly: he doesn’t quite like Achilles with a British accent.
“Taking pity after the little Zulu boy?” Patroclus sneers into his cup, the scotch goes down smooth. Burns a hole in his tongue where he accidentally bit it after a particularly harsh hit. He scoffs, speaks to the table even when he can feel Achilles’s arm brush against his own as he takes a seat beside him. “Don’t bother.”
Achilles has the audacity to laugh. Patroclus doesn’t even have to look over to know exactly how—the slight tilt of the head, the corners of his mouth pulling up. Two glasses are placed in front of them. Patroclus waits until Achilles takes his before reaching over.
“They’re all pigs, aren’t they? Relishing in all this?” Patroclus assumes Achilles is referring to the dogfighting that’s resumed downstairs. The stomps of feet and roars of triumph and defeat occasionally rattle the floorboards beneath them. The bar is much more pleasant—empty save for he and Achilles and the server.
“You were down there too, betting, cheering me on,” Patroclus spits a vicious mixture of blood, saliva, and liquor onto the floor. “So you’re not any better.” Eyes downcast, like an underfoot dog, he downs his third (fourth? fifth?) drink.
He laughs again. The bastard. “Suppose you’re right, then.”
Patroclus wants to beg him to leave, wants to start over, wants to slam himself into the floor or the wall or maybe Achilles’s mouth but instead just picks at the bar’s wooden tabletop until the boy beside him speaks again.
“Patroclus, do you have a place to stay the night?”
“How do you know my name?” The retort is bitter on his tongue. He doesn’t realize he’s whipped around until he’s staring directly into wide green eyes, shocked at Patroclus’s sudden movement. After a few moments of silence, he repeats himself, white knuckling the glass in his healthy hand. “How. Do you know. My. Name.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to offend—”
“It was on the board, while we were placing out bets.” Achilles doesn’t stammer, if Patroclus ever needed actual proof that it was truly the man he’s loved for centuries past, this would be it. Unflinching. Unbroken. Tall and proud and the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. “Is there something else you’d like to be called?”
“No—no, I…” Patroclus immediately deflates, slouching over himself, suddenly very tired. “Never mind.”
“So do you have a place to stay the night?” Achilles places a light hand on his shoulder, bending his body over the bar to try and meet Patroclus’s eyes. “On of the men mentioned—”
There was no point in lying. “No.”
Achilles wraps his arm around Patroclus’s shoulders and it’s the closest thing he’s ever received to an embrace, in this life at least. “My father is renting a house here for the duration of our visit from an old family friend, there’s a guest room—I suppose a sufficient thanks is in order?”
Patroclus glances over and Achilles is actually smiling this time. Not the bare exposure of teeth he saw in the pit. Self-restraint vanishes at that. (It always did, later he won’t understand why he thought this time would be any different.) Patroclus sighs, nods. “I suppose so.”
This is not the part of town he is supposed to be in. The grand aster bushes that line the streets are fat with purple flowers, the soft glow of the lamplighter’s wick a distant pulsing in the fog before them. Achilles is chatting on about his family’s journey here, how his father requested a leave of absence because of a small flu or something or other. Some vague mention of a project Achilles is supposed to be working on. The cobblestones are round beneath his feet, he expects someone to leap from the alleys of every pleasant little townhouse he passes. Demanding papers he doesn’t have or demanding nothing at all and just correcting this bad decision with the butt of a truncheon or something worse. It could always be something worse.
Achilles stops outside one of the homes and opens the gate, gesturing Patroclus forward with the forward sweep of his hand. He wears his hair slicked back, giving the bones of his face the most serpentine of features in this light. Patroclus isn’t sure if he likes that or not. Achilles shoots him a little grin as Patroclus hesitantly steps forward, up the stairs, onto the porch, cranes his head upwards to admire the milkwood scraping against the house’s façade. The door to the house opens with a muffled creak, Achilles motions Patroclus forward.
Hand still cradled to his chest, he takes the first step. Then another. And another after that. His boots do not make a sound against the wood floors—he tries not the gaze upwards in awe at the grand mahogany staircase, the pictures littering the walls just snapshots of different parts of Achilles’s life. Young boy to young man, a cello trapped between his knees, Peleus’s expressionless face, a woman standing beside him. An unfinished house. A bassinet. Glimpses into something new and wondrous. He is happy in this life, Patroclus can tell by the way Achilles eagerly leads him forward, winding their way through the house until they stop in the drawing room.
Something Patroclus is learning very quickly: he thinks that maybe that is the greatest gift of all; that he has found him happy.
Achilles seats him on a cream-colored velvet couch and disappears only to return with a small medicine kit. He places it next to the bucket of cubed ice he’d retrieved to fashion Patroclus a compress, then sits beside him on the squat couch.
“I don’t suppose you take in every stray you win money off of?” Achilles laughs at this, but doesn’t respond. “I can do that.” Their hands brush as Patroclus reaches for the bandages Achilles takes from the box—Achilles nods, hands him the gauze and a small tube of salve. Patroclus begins to work on his hand as Achilles pours a glass of water for the both of them.
“No, this is a definite first.” Achilles leans back in his seat. “I don’t think I ever properly introduced myself—” Patroclus is suddenly grateful he never accidentally admitted to already knowing his name. “My name is Achilles. A pleasure to meet you, Patroclus.”
Patroclus dips his head in a nod, pretends like this is new information as he finishes binding his hand. “You’re a cellist?” He doesn’t find himself surprised that Achilles’s abilities were carried on to this life. The way his eyes light up when Patroclus mentions it makes him regret not bringing it up any sooner.
“A composer, more so. My father sent me here to find focus to complete my second opera—hasn’t been working very well, though. I keep finding myself… distracted.” Achilles grins at this, as if this little admission is a private joke between the two of them. “But yes, I dabble it a few other things as well.” Patroclus wonders what Achilles considers as “dabbling”. He resists the urge to roll his eyes.
“And what is it that you’re working on currently?” Patroclus gingerly prods at the broken skin of his lip with two fingers, winces as he applies salve at the break.
“Again,” Achilles pulls a silver cigarette holder from his blazer’s pocket. “I keep getting distracted by more pressing matters.”
Patroclus raises an eyebrow; the coy look Achilles gives him makes him feel like they’re playing a game with one another. Achilles is about to make a jab, but Patroclus takes the bait anyway. “Such as?”
“Well, currently? You.” Achilles places a cigarette between his lips, lights the tip with a parlor match then tosses the wallet-sized container onto Patroclus’s lap. He blows the smoke out of the side of his mouth as Patroclus opens the latch with one hand, lights his cigarette off of the second match Achilles strikes for him. “But I’ve been thinking something from Dostoyevsky.”
Patroclus inhales, thinks for a moment. “You trying to ride into fame off the coattails of his funeral shroud?”
Achilles laughs at this, really laughs. Big and loud and from his chest. “Six months is a little too soon to start a symphony, you suppose?” He leans across Patroclus to tap his cigarette against the ashtray. The move is exaggerated and unnecessary. Patroclus still has to hide his shudder of a breath at Achilles’s proximity with a weak cough. “I didn’t realize you were familiar with his work?”
Not in this life. A brief flash of a memory—rolling hills of countryside, a cabin surrounded by purple wildflowers. Achilles’s warm breath on the back of his neck on a cold Russian morning. The motherless bastard stole everything from me. The crash of glassware, Patroclus’s fragile attempts to sooth a monumental rage. Everything, word-for-word. Straight out of my dammed mouth. For a moment, Patroclus wonders if their lives ever overlapped. He doesn’t think so. That one had ended in a blaze, quickly and without warning, as they always did.
“I’ve ‘dabbled’.” He shoots Achilles a grin, so he understands the jest was supposed to be taken lightly. “What about something original? Not an adaptation or a monument to someone in the ground. Your own story, created by you.”
“I’ve thought about it.” Achilles tilts his head slightly, looking at Patroclus. Really looking at him—unabashed by the silence that spans the length of the couch as he does so. “Do you need a washroom? It might be easier to bandage that side of your face if there wasn’t so much clutter.” Patroclus tries not to scoff at the fact that Achilles just referred to the ugly concoction of blood dust and sweat caked to his temple as ‘clutter’. He nods, Achilles hops up and motions him forward. Once again, he follows.
The bathroom is, as expected, just as immaculate as the rest of the house. All marble and cherry stained wood. Achilles fills a ceramic basin with warm water for Patroclus and gives him a hand towel. He moves back to lean against the edge of the tub and finish his cigarette, Patroclus stubs is own out on the edge of the basin and flicks it into the rubbish. The water goes from clear to a garish copper and Patroclus scrubs at the side of his face until there’s nothing left.
Achilles is looking at him again. Patroclus drains the water then meets his eyes in the mirror, the muscles of his jaw are working and the look in his eyes gives Patroclus the feeling he is trying to think of the best way to say something. The spatter of blood has dried to a dark stain on the breast of his tuxedo, he’d loosened his tie in the time it took Patroclus to clean himself off. Ran his fingers through his hair, obscuring how perfectly he’d managed to gel it down.
Patroclus decides to help him out on this one. “What is it?”
In four strides, Achilles is so close Patroclus would only have to shift his weight forward and their lips would be touching. His entire body reverberates with something like longing or nervousness or nostalgia. “I was thinking, about what you said—me creating something for myself.” A hand, hesitant, goes to Patroclus’s waist. He leans into the touch, supports himself on the edge of the sink with his one good hand. “Two lovers separated from one another, each having loved and lost. I think I might give them a happy ending, despite it being a tragedy first. I think… I think they deserve that happy ending.” Achilles draws back just enough to look Patroclus in the eyes. His lips are parted. His breathing is as labored as Patroclus’s. He can feel Achilles’s heart, strong yet fluttering, through the fabric of his shirt.
Patroclus hesitates for a moment, searching the man’s eyes. “Shakespeare must be rolling in his grave.”
There is a god on Achilles’s tongue. He is only able to realize this when Achilles kisses him with a smile and it tastes like earth and whiskey and everything is breaking apart and melding together at the same time. There is a god on Achilles’s tongue, a whole life he has yet to explore. Features to relearn. And if he didn’t already know that he loves this boy with green eyes and a crooked smile, he certainly does now. The way they’d mourned one another without ever really knowing it was proof enough.
Achilles sighs into his mouth, buries his face into Patroclus’s hair as Patroclus grinds against the length of him, the both of them taking the smallest obscene inhales—it is known that Patroclus’s love for Achilles is a tragedy first. A self-fulfilling prophecy. What would those old philosophes say now? The intellectuals long since buried in this good earth—what had Achilles said? Back when they were young, back when they did not know any better? Name one hero who was happy.
Achilles carries Patroclus to his bedroom, feet slapping against the wooden floors, hard under Patroclus’s steady hand. He lays him on the bed gently; as to not disturb the hand he still keeps at his chest. Patroclus kisses him harder for this, helps Achilles disrobe before himself, crawls down his panting form, pressing his lips to every part he’s collected from memories.
Because you’re the reason.
When he takes Achilles into his mouth, the man whispers his name. Patroclus laces Achilles’s fingers with his own, squeezes his hand. Achilles smiles, says some breathy admission of bliss or thanks or maybe it’s just a laugh and holds to Patroclus just as tightly.
I swear it.
The gas lamps outside wash Achilles’s room in the golden glow of a warm night’s light. From where he pretends to sleep, his back pressed against Achilles’s chest, their hands still interlocked, Patroclus calculates his options. Well, there were two: leave or stick around long enough to watch it all be taken away from them. In this life he is happy. He tells himself. He realizes this is more questioning if Patroclus is selfless enough to even consider the first option. With a quiet sigh, Patroclus wraps the bed sheet around his shoulders and wanders back to the hallway Achilles had guided him through that night.
He stops before the first frame that catches his eye. This is an older photograph. A young Achilles cradles the limp corpse of a pheasant in a pudgy fist. He is looking up, at the camera, and stony faced—in the mirror on the wall behind him, a flash of light. Patroclus splays a hand over the image’s features. Achilles’s eyes echo a thirst he saw before but… But this time it’s different. This time it’s look. This is for you. I made this for you.
“What’r you doing?”
Patroclus withdraws his hand from the glass, still looking at the mop of blond hair, the bird’s limp neck. “Nothing.” Arms wrap around his waist, beneath the sheet. Achilles surrounds the entirely of him, Patroclus leans into the kiss he presses into the dip of his shoulder.
“Come back to bed.”
“Mmhf,” he turns his head to brush his lips against Achilles’s temple. Achilles tightens one arm around his waist and in one-move hoists Patroclus into his arms. The sheet trailing behind them, Patroclus leans his head onto Achilles’s shoulder, smiles when Achilles carries him up the grand stair case. He finds it warm. He finds his lover’s heart beating. He closes his eyes.
It is morning and Patroclus only opens his eyes to the sound of his name, stiffens and lifts his head to get a better look at Achilles. He’s lying on his back; they’d spent the past few hours upon waking slowly learning the different parts of the other. Achilles repeatedly pulls his fingers through Patroclus’s hair; Patroclus busies himself tracing the veins of Achilles’s forearm with his index finger. A breeze lifts the curtains of the windows, outside there is only birdsong.
“Do you not like it, when I call you by name?”
Patroclus hides his blush in the crook of Achilles’s neck, embarrassed that his reactions had been that obvious. “No I… I do. I just think—” Patroclus inhales deeply, taking in the morning’s light and the sheets wrapped around them and how much he’s missed this. “I scares me a little, what happens when you do. What it entails.”
“Hm,” Achilles draws him a little closer. “Pa-tro-clus.” As if on command, he closes his eyes. Inhales. Achilles’s chest is warm against his cheek, and the methodical way in which he traces every notch of Patroclus’s spine with his knuckles is enough to bring Patroclus to tears. He just presses the length of his nose against the hollow of Achilles’s throat, throws a leg over his hips. “It’s funny,” Achilles’s voice reverberates in Patroclus’s chest. It’s warm. “I think I had a dream about this. It feels familiar.”
And Patroclus thinks maybe he’ll stay here a while. Even if it doesn’t last, maybe he’ll stay here.
Chapter 5: cacophony
i should b studying for finals
A woman opens her mouth and warbles the final note, arms spread towards the audience in the likeness of a bird posed for flight. The makeup they’ve smeared to her face gives her the appearance of a doll, two girlish splotches of rogue stain her plump cheeks. The song she sings is enough to move the audience to tears, the symphony swells into the cacophony that is the last dying movement.
Somewhere, not far from the theater bursting at the seams with people, two bodies sleep side by side. One reaches for the other. In a dream they are lying on their backs in an olive orchard, or maybe it’s a beach—none of that really matters, only just that they are together. And they are laughing. And they are bright.
Please. They have suffered enough.
The storm never stops.
“even his kindness burnt”
-Sam Sax, “Blood Line”
‘Now you will never die’,
whisper the birds into your
‘Now you will never die.’"
-Caitlyn Siehl, Prometheus
i had to re-upload this bc i fucked up im Very sorry im really dumb
uhoh the warnings for this are going to be Wild
tw: drug use, mentions of rape, graphic violence, implied violence against animals and children, triggered flashbacks of war, blasphemy, torture
summary of this chapter: pat is thirsty but achilles is Thirstier, or: Briseis deserves better 2k16, or: u never asked for abstract expressionist Achilles but here it is anyway ive been thinking abt this au since I started tsoa i went a little overboard..,,,,, also i know bourgeois refers to the middle class not aristocrats but let me just have this ok i’ve been Screaming abt Marxist Pat for Long Enough
punk means twink thanks gaylabinsky for all my 40s slang
also !! quick note on the last names I picked—swear I didn’t just pull them out of my ass!! surnames are used to distinguish your familial linage but they haven’t been commonly used since very recently (17th century all up in this bitch), with British surnames in particular it is traditionally linked to your father’s side. This means that last names like “Anderson” or “Johnson” actually mean (respectively) “the son of Anders/Andrew” and “the son of John”. Therefore I used the first names of Patroclus’s and Achilles’s grandfathers so we wouldn’t be stuck with something like Peleus Peleus or Menoitius Menoitius !! anyway that probably wasn’t necessary at all but just wanted to at least give y’all proof I don’t just slam my head against the keyboard a coupla times and hit submit (even tho it sometimes reads like it does lmao)
as always thank you to my beautiful betas gaylabinsky && thedevilyouknow this chapter took a long ass time and probably wouldn't have been completed if it weren't for them
i have a tumblr now !! y'all can check it out and see updates for hints about oncoming chapters/general inspo !! and thank you thank you thank you for the kudos and bookmarks and comments they seriously mean the entire world for me i love you all so so so much <3
Patroclus’s favorite painting looks like the inside of a cracked and bleeding crystal, so lifelike he’s half hoping the image will peel off the canvas and start breathing. Or screaming. Probably both. The upper left corner boasts a box of white, messily slathered on with what looks like an unsteady hand. “Cock-tease” one particularly brutal critique had claimed. Patroclus can’t find it within himself to agree, thinks it adds a certain… reality. Purposefully defaced, unfinished. That it is nothing more than just that—an image. Something to look at then scoff. As if the creator was poking fun at himself.
“Do you really like shit like this?”
“Hmm?” Patroclus doesn’t turn to look at whoever is speaking to him, just rocks back and forth on the heels of his feet, the newspaper baring the name of the gallery balled in his fist.
“This… Whatever this is. Why do you like it?”
Patroclus laughs, a soft thing barely escaping his lips—too afraid to disturb the hushed quiet of the people milling about and gazing upwards at the massive canvases littered around the gallery. The coverage in yesterday’s paper was enough to garner some pull to the gallery, scathing as it was. Patroclus scratches at his jaw, biting the inside of his cheek in thought. “I uh… I think it’s almost like—like calming, y’know? To see this? With all this outward conflict and desolation and pain it’s good to look at something that’s… something that’s internal. Contained. The Blitz is over but the fear is still there, for all of us. But with this, it can be controlled. Distorted and defaced—.” He gestures to the white box of paint at the left corner. “It can be both real and unreal, all at the same time. Kind of wonderful, if you think about it.”
A moment of silence, so long Patroclus was almost sure his cynical companion had left. Then: “I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an artist going around shit-talking his own work, but you’ve managed to surprise me.” Patroclus slides his gaze away from the painting, lets his eyes drift up and down the gentle slope of the man’s cheek, the brief but brilliant blush that crosses the artist’s nose. “The girls back there have been tittering on about you being here for the good part of twenty minutes—don’t take it to harshly, mate.”
“I’ll try not to,” his voice is warm, edgeless—at an odd contrast to the keening animal of a canvas before them. He sticks his hand out, Patroclus hesitates. “Achilles Aeacus.”
“Patroclus Actor,” he takes Achilles’s hand, gives in a sharp shake in greeting. “A pleasure to meet you.”
They don’t recognize me. It comes in a wail, in a storm. They don’t they can’t—
In a cliff, by the water. She feels the empty ache of remembrance in the very fibers of her gut. These memories are her load to bear. When they first touch, she can feel it in her chest. A nostalgic burst of light, like the quivering of bird’s wings. These memories are hers. This monument of elegies and epics, sorrow and sentiment.
She weeps into the sand, into the sky, the stone and the wind watch her mourn. Impassive. Her son is too fueled by hate and fear in this life to recognize her, the warrior in him too hungry for power to claim memories. He is not himself without them, he is not kind, his soul holds only the barest gesture of golden light.
She spends this life weeping.
They have coffee in a café three blocks away from the gallery. Achilles claims he wants to hear more about what “the good soldier” thinks of his work. (That’s what he starts calling him, as soon as he notices Patroclus’s limp, the way he flinches at sounds that come to loud. “The good soldier”—he doesn’t take it as an insult. He doesn’t think it’s meant to be.) Patroclus claims he isn’t as nervous as he really is with a good-natured laugh, too used to men like Achilles walking over him without even blinking. (His drill sergeant had eyes like Achilles, sharp, quick, able to build you up then cut you down in a minute’s time. Achilles’s hands have paint on them, though. Not marred by anything harsher than acrylics.)
Over a cup of espresso, Achilles tells him of his process. The troubles it takes getting the paints he prefers through the blockades now that “this damn thing” (the ships in the ocean, the six months Patroclus spent in the trench, the men howling for home or reasons to keep fighting or what the hell gives us the right to decide who lives or dies Pat? Huh? Who do we think we are, playing God like this? Who the fuck do we think we--) has really been set into gear, how his father thinks his hobbies are foolish but allows him to carry on anyway. He was disquieted by the review in the paper, so he visited the gallery himself to see if the reception was really going that poorly.
Patroclus only half-listens, too consumed by the way Achilles’s hands move as he speaks to fully pay attention. He barely touches his drink, only takes a few bites out of the pastry Achilles insisted he should have. Patroclus’s back is just beginning to ache from the wicker chair when Achilles first directly asks about his service. Blunt, to the point, no petty skirting around what he’s really trying to say.
“So it’s because of your leg, then, that they sent you home?” Achilles leans back, rests his right ankle against his left knee, the leather of his shoes impeccably polished in the café’s warm light. He’d replaced the small cup of espresso with a glass of water, he gestures to Patroclus with it now. He straightens almost immediately, the throbbing reminder in his hip biting back a more biting response.
“Unfit for combat,” Patroclus replies stiffly, unsure if Achilles (great and wonderful with a speck of dried paint on his wrist that he’d forgotten to scrub away) would take this as a mark of weakness. “Honorably discharged.” White lie. Doesn’t matter. Achilles just tilts his head slightly, doesn’t comment.
“I was considering asking where you were stationed.” He leans back into his chair, lights a cigarette. Looks like something out of one of those Noir films.
“Seems like a touchy subject, soldier boy,” he grins around the fag, Patroclus looks to his hands. “Sorry, I’m the artist-type y’know. Good at ruffling people’s feathers.”
“You also run with the bougies, that’s gotta ruffle more then a coupla feathers,” he takes a sip of coffee to keep the statement casual. Pretends like it’s not the thing that stood out to him the most reading that review in the paper. Everyone moaning about how much suffering someone can put onto the canvas. What kind of suffering has this artist gone through sucking off the teat of his father’s sugar industry his entire life? Harsh words. But they caught Patroclus’s interest nonetheless.
(Further in the back of his head: all of the Aeacus competitors are collapsing due to the weight of the war. Soon there wont be much left for Achilles to live off of.)
Achilles (bright and laughing, god bless him, laughing) takes it in stride. “Didn’t know we had ourselves a little Marxist.”
“Yeah well,” Patroclus tries to laugh along with him, hopes it doesn’t sound as nervous as he feels. “Spend enough time in the trenches you start hating the thing that put you there.”
“You know, buddy, you’re not so bad.” Achilles, one side of his mouth drawn upwards in a lopsided smile, plucks his cigarette from his mouth and gestures to where Patroclus is sitting. “I think I might just keep you around.”
Being “kept” by Achilles means a telegram arriving at the door of his apartment at precisely noon three days after their initial meeting. A brisk instruction saying his father was intrigued when Achilles told him of Patroclus and that he had been invited to the Aeacus Estate for dinner that night. The Aeacus Estate. The Aeacus Estate. In less than twelve hours.
Instead of a signature, Achilles concludes with ten words: Be a good soldier and wear your finest, will you?
Patroclus begins to develop a feeling akin to dread at the pit of his stomach. Or elation. Both, he decides as he immediately tries to think of what constitutes as “finest” for Achilles. He’s the son of one of the richest men in the world and this morning Patroclus had barely made it out of bed before he had to kill a rat that was around the size of his foot.
He looks at himself in the mirror on his way out the door. Charcoal suit, his father’s. (It fits him a little too well; this should more than frighten Patroclus.) Tan sweater. (Thankfully his own, he hides the moth-eaten holes in the sleeves with the blazer.) Oxfords (not Brogues) shined until he could see his reflection.
Patroclus looks too much like the man he’d joined the army trying to avoid becoming. He almost doesn’t walk through the door because of this.
But he also remembers how Achilles had forgotten to scrub away the paint on his wrist. The twitch of his barely present smile. The way he said, “soldier” and “war” and “furious” and “lust”. How the conversation they held seemed to last decades and seconds all at once. How when they’d shaken hands in parting, Patroclus felt as though an entire world’s worth of birds were nesting between his ribs, all agreeing to stretch their wings the moment Achilles touched him.
He grabs a newspaper for the train. He locks his door behind him.
There’s a Fiat 1100 waiting for him the second he steps out of the station, the driver doesn’t even ask if Patroclus is the man they’re supposed to be picking up before he gestures him inside.
The estate is at the end of a winding gravel path, hedgerows at either side creating insurmountable walls of green beside the car before they follow the road into a field so picturesque Patroclus half-believes he’s been propelled into a Monet (or some other white man smearing a canvas with some semblance of utopia). Rolling fields of pure green, stretching for miles before them, studded with neat rows of trees—the driver, Andrew, points out a lake and two guest houses (Christ almighty).
It’s June, and every piece of land is swathed in a bright and luscious green, despite the melancholy weather. The main house is surrounded with a well-groomed garden harboring flowers of every make and build, the worn yellow façade of the Victorian-style estate at an odd contrast with the deep brown of the roof and shutters. In the distance the swelling backs of pine-covered mountains pose as menacing gray gods in the thick fog settling over the Aeacus land.
And Achilles comes riding beside them on a bay thoroughbred with a whoop (Christ almighty). Covered in mud, his curls slicked to his skull with sweat, polo mallet resting against his shoulder as he leans into the speed of the horse’s broad strides. Patroclus can’t help but feel himself start to grin, he leans over to roll down the window, the sound of hooves spitting gravel against the car providing a steady rhythm as he shouts his greeting.
“The good soldier!” Achilles shouts over the engine, the horse jostles him forward abruptly, the laugh of surprise he gives in response is all the song in the world. He’s out of breath, his body moves fluidly with the thoroughbred’s steady gallop. “Half of me wasn’t expecting you’d accept the invitation!”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world!” Patroclus manages back, leaning out the window to crane his neck upwards to look at Achilles. “Didn’t know someone could play polo by themselves!”
He laughs again, really throws his head back this time, exposes the marble slope of his neck. “The rest of ‘em are back there, knew to give up the race back to the stables as soon as it started—my father’s men, soldier-boy. Don’t look so despondent, it’ll still be just us for dinner.”
(Patroclus is thankful Achilles is not able to see the heat that rises to his cheeks, he hides this with a laugh to match Achilles’s own.)
“Let Andrew escort you to my studio! I’ll get cleaned up and meet you there,” he taps the side of the car with his fist, woops again, the horse speeds into the grass. Just as Achilles was about it disappear over the first hill, he shouts behind him: “Be a good soldier and don’t touch anything, will you?”
Andrew murmurs something under his breath, glances in the rearview mirror to meet Patroclus’s eyes before flicking his gaze forward. They continue down the path, passing the main house and the gardens. Patroclus can see a smaller cottage over the next hill, not as grand as either of the guesthouses but as they approach he can make out a glass roof, a fat dog sleeping on the front porch. Andrew stops the car and opens Patroclus’s door for him, he thanks the driver with a dip of his head before turning to leave.
Andrew speaks to Patroclus’s back. “Don’t accept. No matter how much they offer.”
“Sorry?” Patroclus’s grip tightens on the newspaper he holds in his lap. He’d hardly been able to focus on the stories of the war effort on the ride over, mind racing too fast to grab anything more than a word or two before drifting towards something… brighter. (Achilles’s mouth, the way his throat moved as he swallowed, dried paint and the feeling of the pastry between his pinched fingers. Thoughts not appropriate to be thinking of a man. Patroclus is unable to find it within himself to care.)
Andrew abruptly turns and ducks back into the car. Patroclus can almost believe they’d never exchanged words, his only hint he hadn’t daydreamed the interaction is by the set of the driver’s jaw. Like he just said something he wasn’t supposed to. (Andrew has the eyes of a man fresh off the battlefield. Patroclus does not like the feeling this gives him.)
Patroclus gives the retreating car a wary look before stepping over the dog splayed across the entrance, muttering an apology under his breath when he accidentally nudges the bitch with the toe of his shoe (She gives a disgruntled huff, but no other acknowledgement of his presence).
The studio stands as a repurposed greenhouse, half encased in the matching facades of the main houses, while the back opens to be encased in glass. On a sunnier day, the room would have been flooded by light, turning each color on the canvases vibrant, alive with the same tension he’d seen in the gallery.
And Christ, does he wish he could have seen those piece here, where the pine forest began not fifty yards away, the usually neatly trimmed landscape of the Aeacus Estates growing wild this far out of sight of the main houses.
(A small part of Patroclus is hoping not many get to see Achilles this way, surrounded by the chaos of nature. Though, when he really thinks about it, Achilles is that piece of untamed landscape in every room he walks into. His smile alone can so easily be the wildfire that burns civilizations to the ground.)
The massive eight by eleven foot work hanging on the wall is the first to catch his eye, the conflicting battle of red and cream and a sickly green marred by a chaotic scribble of charcoal lines in a hand shaking so vigorously it was difficult to fully read.
(He catches: and his head was in my lap but his mouth was bleeding and his eyes his eyes his eyes oh holy roman believe oh sea sworn lover. He catches: the trenches ate him mother England save us god fucks the queen and we all applaud we all laugh and dance and sing bright harmonious language of dead kings dead soldiers. He tries not to think of how Achilles couldn’t possibly know what it means to be consumed by something so malignant if he’s never felt the trench’s water in his boots. How it gets between your toes and in your mouth and everything bright is lowered into fog and ash. He couldn’t possibly know.)
And the boxes of white, everywhere. Sometimes under the text, sometimes positioned over key words or phrases. A stridency of color and panic, shell shocked and writhing. The ones in the gallery were nothing compared to this anxiety, this thriving mass of internal conflict.
(But still, the voice inside Patroclus’s head nags: he knows nothing he knows nothing of what you’ve been through he knows nothing. And: we’re fucking dirt. We’re fucking dirt out here Pat, y’hear me? There is no God. There is no sun. Who lives and who dies isn’t up to us—look at me! Look! I’m standing up here and fucking nothing can touch me nothing—)
He remembers what Achilles said about not touching anything and clasps his hands behind his back, the tarp stretched across the floor crinkling under his Oxfords. Patroclus leans into the painting a little closer, tilting his head to examine where the paints had been poured, thin bleeding lines of green develop where the reds and creams collide.
“I knew that’d be the first you’re drawn to,” Achilles’s voice is enough to make him jolt back to reality. Patroclus jerks backwards, catching himself before he could glare at Achilles for making his entrance so unknown. He hadn’t known how long he’d been staring at the piece for, apparently enough time for Achilles to bathe and dress again. Well, “dress” being an objective term. His slacks are a darker gray than Patroclus’s suit, suspenders, a rumpled dress shirt (messily buttoned, half tucked into his trousers, wrinkled as if he’d just pulled it from the floor) matching the mass of wet curls turned a dirty blond with the weight of the water. A bowtie, untied, hangs loosely over his shoulders.
Patroclus finds it difficult to resist a roll of his eyes and Achilles’s state of undress, turns away from the painting as if he could try and prove the obnoxious blond wrong by feigning interest in something else. “The text is a different touch.”
“You think?” Achilles strolls beside him, mimicking Patroclus’s previously clasped hands, peering over his shoulder as Patroclus leafs through some of the canvases stacked against the wall. “Is that a good or a bad thing?”
“Interesting. That’s all,” Patroclus stands back, absent-mindedly rubs a hand over his injured hip. He pretends he can’t feel Achilles’s hot breath on the nape of his neck, eagerly waiting for some kind of approval. After a while of feigning disinterest, he speaks again. “How was your match?”
“The polo match, how was it?”
“Oh,” Achilles peels away, going to look out the furthermost wall made entirely of the former greenhouse’s paned glass. He sticks his hands in the front pockets, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, craning his head around as if he’d never seen the space before. “Well, thank you for asking. My father gives them to me for entertainment if anything else—”
“Them?” Patroclus raises and eyebrow, eyes flicking over a discarded palette before settling back on Achilles’s form. A snort of laughter from Achilles, indignant.
“My father’s guard, think nothing of them. I’ve told you already, good soldier. It’ll just be us.”
“That’s not what I’m curious about.”
This piques his interest. Achilles turns to look at Patroclus over his shoulder, corner of his lip hitched in the beginnings of a smile, but his eyes are narrowed in the slightest semblance of disbelief. “And what is it that you’re curious about?”
Andrew’s words, how you tend to stop all conversation the second you mention your father. How an artist like you can afford all this with the measly earnings of a falling industry. Patroclus decides on the simplest question to ask. “Why does someone like your father need enough men to make up two polo teams to protect him? And why does he throw them your way every time you throw a fit because you’re bored?” He can’t keep the hostility from his tone. The canvas on the wall is boring holes into his back.
(In the back of his head, again. Ruining everything, again: who the fuck does he think he is, what gives him the right to try to capitalize off of us? Off of them? Dead men are dead men no matter where they come from. What gives him the right what gives him the—)
“You’re quite the firecracker, aren’t you?”
Patroclus wants out. It’s foolish and it’s weak but he can’t look at Achilles without seeing the green exploding beside the red, the vicious nature of trench water. Can’t look at him without seeing his lieutenant’s face, wild and laughing and covered in gore. Our kind don’t get to be in the history books. Men like us are erased as soon as we pull the trigger.
“You could say that.” Patroclus can feel the shift in the air, something overturning, revealing itself.
The Achilles that turns and cocks his head to the side is not the same man who had stood beside him in the gallery. Nor the man who’d drawn him into the coffee shop, or who sent him that letter. It was, though, the same man. A different face, but the same man had been hiding beneath that boyish charm all along.
(Just a subtle change in the tilt of his jaw, the narrow of his eyes. Malicious in nature, malicious in tongue.)
And just like that, it disappears. Achilles smiles and it’s all doe eyes and pearly whites, Patroclus doesn’t know how to process what happened. He’s only certain that this is a lot more complex than just dinner with an aspiring artist and a failing sugar monger. They want something from him, if whatever Andrew said to him was correct.
Patroclus has gone an entire lifetime refusing the most precious parts of himself to men like his father. He wasn’t going to start now. Achilles is not the man he’s pretending to be—Patroclus should know, he had used those very same tactics himself when he was young.
Achilles, pleasantly, opens his mouth and all the breath leaves Patroclus’s body. “Oh, and you can stop faking that limp now. Father won’t appreciate it as much as I do.” Patroclus thinks getting hit by a car at that very moment would come as less of a shock. Achilles speaks these words with the same innocence of the man to first approached him in the gallery, their biting meaning barely hidden by the curvature of his virtuous smile. “Come now, dinner will start soon.” He turns heel, strides out the door.
There are two options: follow or run as fast as he can.
There is one problem: Moth to the flame, rabbit to a snare. Whatever boring metaphor you choose, it was all the same. Patroclus was raised to follow the wildfire, to clean up the broken pieces, eat the ashen landscape it leaves behind because nothing can stop a force of nature so bright.
Maybe it was with this hesitation that the fates were denying him his privilege of choice. Maybe this hesitation was Sisyphus watching the boulder roll back down the mountainside; maybe this means that there is no other option. He does not have a choice as the choice has already been made for him.
There is one option: follow.
Patroclus takes a deep breath. So into the lion’s den it is.
The sky grows a deep gray with their arrival. Achilles leads him down the winding path, animatedly talking about the promise of rain, the gout that almost claimed half of their flowering trees last season. Patroclus follows a few paces away and pretends not to look like he has just been struck by lightning, or some other powerful force guided by the hand of another peculiar god.
Patroclus numbly nods and agrees with whatever Achilles is saying, keeping stride easily without the need to favor his left leg. The main house rises over the hill, the windows brilliant squares of warm light in early nightfall’s shadow. At the door, Patroclus politely declines the offer to remove his blazer to a maid with kind eyes and a polite smile.
The dining room holds a fireplace as tall as he, because of course it does. Of course his family’s sigil is carved into the marble, of course they have a stuffed fox on the mantel and a Rembrandt on the wall. (A fucking Rembrandt. That painting cost more than everything Patroclus owns three times over.)
Peleus Aeacus is already seated, and doesn’t move to stand as the two of them enter the room. Son kneels before father, kisses an outstretched hand, and stands back, gesturing Patroclus forward.
He smiles at the sight of Patroclus, faint but present. His eyes are darker than Achilles’s, glinting with the light of the fire. “Mr. Actor, I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Patroclus ducks his head, unsure if the same prostrations were expected of him. He settles with a polite: “I could say the same, sir. It’s a pleasure to have finally met you.” A glance to Achilles, the look on his face gives Patroclus clue that this was enough. He immediately looks back to Peleus, trying to school his features into the same semblance of politeness people used to address his father with.
Peleus instructs Achilles to bring him to the head of the table as the house’s staff begins to bring out dinner. Achilles dutifully stands behind his father and pushes him forward, his wheelchair moving soundlessly against the polished hardwood floors.
“Is it that surprising, Skops?” Peleus says this with humor. Patroclus’s brow furrows as he takes a seat upon Achilles’s subtle motioning to the chair beside the patriarch.
“I—I’m sorry sir?”
“Skops, Greek. You look vexed as an owl.” He turns to Achilles, as if momentarily forgetting Patroclus’s presence. “Good features. Strong. Need to school those eyes if he’s to be of any use, my sight isn’t what it used to be but I can still read him like a book.” Achilles chuckles under his hand and shrugs, glancing to Patroclus and winking. Like father, like son; Patroclus was a man pitted against two lions. Or maybe the fox of the Aeacus’s family sigil was more accurate, swift-footed and cunning. Lethal. “It was an automobile accident, Skops. Before your time.” Patroclus doesn’t know how he feels about the fact that each member of the Aeacus family has a pet name for him.
Peleus drills him on every aspect of his life, education (Belfast, then straight to basic the second the war was declared in the morning’s papers), family (a stiff “not in London”, an unspoken “not anywhere”), military experience (a non-exact, again stiff, “basic, then Eighth Army, seven months”). Vaguely intrusive, but he doesn’t pry. He asks Patroclus more about his classes at university, as if he was returning for summer break, as if he hadn’t sent in his resignation letter on the train to basic.
Patroclus feels like he’s missing the punch line to a joke, or maybe it’s him that is the punch line. Patroclus also feels the same he did the first time the Germans started slugging mortars at them. The raised hair at the nape of his neck, the heavy feeling of the stomach with the sudden silence of something’s wrong something’s wrong something’s wrong. He learned to obey those feelings of the gut in the trenches, but he doesn’t think he has the luxury of decision here.
He keeps quiet, speaks when spoken to, and tries to observe patterns, hints to what their intentions were. It was like sitting in on one of his father’s business meetings, but at least then he’d known the inclinations, patterns in speech.
The ability to relate this to his father’s behavior should have been his first warning. (Sisyphus and the boulder, moth to the flame. History repeats and reuses and burns everything to the ground, eventually everything will be ash and dust, eventually, but not yet. Not yet.)
“Do you consider yourself a noble man, Patroclus?” Achilles gives him a look like a panther eyeing a caged bird. It’s the first time Achilles has really spoken since entering the room; he drinks slowly from the wine glass cradled in his hand. Patroclus realizes this is the beginning of the conversation he was brought here to have.
(He knows this by the way Achilles unfolds into the serpent, the same glittering eyes hidden behind long blond lashes. Patroclus was foolish for ever assuming Achilles has walked through this life with only paints to mar the purity of his hands.)
Peleus silently cuts into the steak one of the cleanly dressed members of the staff had put before him, the clink of the fork and knife meeting the bravado of the fire as the only noise that fills the space between the three of them as Patroclus thinks of his answer. He speaks after mulling the words over in his head a few times over. “I don’t consider anyone noble.”
“And why’s that?”
“Just don’t.” Silence, after some time Patroclus gathers the courage to speak. “Why?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I wanted to know why exactly the good soldier lied to me, Patroclus.” Achilles leans forward in his seat; suddenly the fireplace got a whole lot louder. “Because—and correct me if I’m wrong—there’s a big distinction between honorable and dishonorable discharges.” There’s nothing left of the coy yet self-obsessed artist Patroclus first met in Achilles’s features. Patroclus finds it hard to believe he could even consider this side of Achilles the same person. What had happened in the studio only proves this. “Pretty sure you should be in jail right now, shouldn’t you, darling?”
“I don’t think you understand—,”
“Oh I completely understand,” he grins and it’s the maw of the wolf, serpentine eyes glinting with joy at Patroclus’s obvious horror. “That’s the reason you’re here. Son of an ex-kingpin, best shot in the business decided maybe taking up arms for the Queen ‘stead of sitting back and watching his father’s empire crumble.” Patroclus feels sick to his stomach, but holds his ground, straightens his spine. Achilles continues, “But—uh oh! Soon as he’s out of harm’s way in some dog-shit hovel in the middle of the desert, his commanding officer finds him shoving his thumbs into the eyes of some poor superior that made the unlucky decision of having a drink with him—”
“He tried to rape a girl right in front of me.” Patroclus manages to grind out, leaving it at that. (Because it really was that simple, that night, that quiet end to what he had been working towards for so long.) “Whatever it is you brought me here for, you could have just said it by now. None of this prancing around the real topic at hand.”
“Oh you’re a brilliant one, aren’t you?” If it weren’t impossible, Patroclus thinks Achilles’s grin may have just widened. He leans backwards until the massive oak chair threatens to tip backwards and glances at Peleus. “Father, I do believe he’s figured us out!” All the response he gets is Peleus pleasantly eating the piece of steak from the tip of his fork, they could have been dining in silence according to Peleus’s calm expression, no reaction to the words being flung across the table.
Peleus doesn’t say anything, still gazing into the fire, dragging his nails over the wooden surface of the armrest.
“I don’t much enjoy games, Mr. Aeacus.”
Achilles waves a hand as if he were swatting away a fly, rolling his eyes. “Oh but I do.”
Patroclus doesn’t know how to respond, so he keeps quiet, stares at Achilles for a long time. Achilles (of course) returns his look evenly, head tilted in the slightest motion of a challenge. “So what’s the point? You’ve got me. What now?” If he hadn’t been Menoitius’s son, he could have mistaken Peleus’s hinted smile as genuine. He finishes the remark anyway, possessed by a moment of bad judgment, the need to match one of Achilles’s scathing remarks with his own. “Or does this little charade not allow me to ask my own questions?”
“We’ve had our eyes on you,” Achilles lifts his knife, digs the point into the table, fiddles with the elegantly carved ivory handle. “Take it or leave it, we want to make an offer.”
“Forgive me, I thought I was invited to dinner, not a job interview.” Patroclus has a death wish, that’s the only way he can justify the words coming from his mouth. This was more like the younger version himself, controlled by anger and hate, just as his father raised him to be. Maybe his company he keeps brings it out. Most likely. In the army there had been barriers of self-preservation guarding his mouth. Fear of punishment, falling rank, the hateful eyes of his fellow men. Here there was nothing to guard him.
Achilles, ever ready, is speaking before words can leave Patroclus’s tongue. “Oh this isn’t an interview. That comes later. In a few weeks time—which I could have told you already if you would shut up and listen.” His tone gives no air for argument, that knife was going to be used if Patroclus didn’t leash his tongue. Guard enough, Patroclus curls his hand into a fist but doesn’t dare part his lips to speak. Achilles’s nostrils flare, but his shoulders visibly relax. “My father wants to offer you a position on his staff.”
Patroclus knows exactly what this means. Patroclus understands Andrew’s warning, his hard look through the rearview mirror, with perfect clarity. But he doesn’t speak. But he doesn’t leave. Because he made his decision the second he followed Achilles out of the studio. Patroclus just doesn’t want them to know that, yet. Too stubborn. Or proud. Doesn’t matter which.
He breathes deeply, surveys his options (or lack thereof). “And if I refuse?”
Achilles recognizes this for the answer it is. He smiles and it’s the bleeding crystal of his first canvas, the violent burst of mahogany against white. A wound of a grin. Wolf going for the kill. “Father, what happens if he refuses?”
Peleus cuts into another piece of steak, the serrated edge cleaving through cooked muscle tissue. He lifts his eyes from his plate, coolly looks from Achilles to Patroclus, and asks for a cup of water.
It’s December 8th, Pearl Harbor is humming on the lips of every radio’s speaker, and Patroclus hasn’t slept in three days. The cigarette shakes violently in his hand as he brings it to his lips, chapped, almost blue with the bite of the air. In the sights of his rifle is a man’s cat. An Italian cat. An Italian cat owned by an Italian man. An Italian man that stole £400,000 worth of opium three days ago. More specifically, an Italian man that stole £400,000 worth of Achilles’s opium three days ago.
And Patroclus is here. To kill his cat.
Because his boss is a child that couldn’t help rolling with glee the second he learns of Mr. Castorini’s beloved orange tabby. No family or friends, close relations to make an example of. Just Sunshine the cat. Because the plans to capture and torture Mr. Castorini in exactly five hours weren’t enough.
Achilles wants the cat dead. So the cat was going to die.
And Patroclus was going to spend three hours lining up the perfect shot, as per the letter’s instructions, (Be a good soldier and make sure he’s in the room when it happens) because this was his job, now. To kill cats, apparently.
To say he was in a foul mood was a bit of an understatement.
Instructions never came directly from Achilles, only written on paper to be burned or from the mouth of Andrew, an ever-present (yet silent) figure in Patroclus’s periphery. The last view of Achilles he’d had (an image held tightly in a warm yet guilty part of his mind) was that of his turned back as he watched the fire when Patroclus left. Six months ago.
So that was how it began. Patroclus now runs around war-torn land in desperate attempt after attempt to prove himself to Achilles. (Because that, at its core, is what it truly is. Patroclus isn’t childish enough to deny this.) To rise to the challenge. Become a chess piece in the ever-fluctuating battle playing out under the skin of London’s streets; utilize Patroclus’s fear of failure against him.
He barely sleeps. He barely eats. Every moment it’s either tugging a mask over his face and robbing a jewelry store or shoving into some unlucky thug’s apartment and blowing out the brains of his mistress or his child or (in this lucky case) his cat. Everything to “send a message”, everything to cultivate fear.
That should be Patroclus’s job description: fear monger extraordinaire. (Watch as he gets sucked back into everything he’s tried to prove himself not to be! Watch as he lowers himself back to the vilest form of the human figure! Made of nothing but repressed lust and greed, watch as he ruins everything he’s cultivated during his few years of precious freedom! Watch as the fire consumes him! Watch as he becomes nothing but ash!)
Six months and this was still his “interview”. Six months that have turned his body into a wretched horror show of scars and poking ribs, nicotine stained fingers and a crude mouth to match—Christ, he’s even started drinking. Not even his father was ever able to drive him to these lengths.
But his father was not Achilles.
For a lot of reasons, but considering the current circumstances (and that it was so cold he was surely going to lose his nose), specifically one rose to mind. Menoitius did not kill cats. Because Menoitius may have been a sadistic psychopath hell-bent on destroying anything and everything in his path, but he was not petty. This was petty.
And also completely expected of Achilles. Because Achilles is petty. Achilles is petty and makes the men he has working for him sit on a fucking rooftop in the middle of who-the-fuck-knows Switzerland aiming the rifle not at the expatriate fascist who’s killed more people than Patroclus can count, but his. Fucking. Cat.
(Where was that boy he left at Belfast? A small part of him cries. A weak part, too preoccupied with sentiment to keep up with the reality of what was happening. Or maybe that’s his cynicism talking. That’s been happening a lot, recently. Where was that boy who was warm, soft spoken, who studied art as he might study a crime scene? Where is he now?)
Patroclus finishes the cigarette, stubs it out on the cold cement beside his arm. Three days ago, he had gotten eight consecutive hours of sleep. In a bed. Not a quick thirty-minute nap on a train between jobs, not an hour or two in an alley as he waits for informants about the movement of Kenyan diamonds through the chaos of war. An actual bed, with sheets, and a fireplace.
The second week into Patroclus’s trial Andrew had taken one look at the bags under Patroclus’s eyes and scoffed. “You never realize how grateful you can be for basic human resources until you start working for the Aeacus family,” he’d spat on the ground, handed Patroclus a piece of paper that sent him into the thicket of an anti-colonial revolution. “Good luck.”
The dry sarcasm really catches on, after a while. A layer of cynicism to distract Patroclus from how much his bones ache, all the way down to the marrow. He’d grown familiar with Andrew’s stony looks on his own face, growing harder then anything he’d have developed if he’d stayed in the trenches. Achilles kept him to the outskirts of any real conflict, presumably with the completion of his interview he would get closer to London, closer to the base of operations.
When would that be? Patroclus has no idea how long this test goes on for. At three weeks in, “months” had been a worst-case scenario. Actually, worst-case scenario had been that Achilles was going to use Patroclus until he exhausted his purpose.
It was looking to be that worst-case scenario was also the most likely scenario.
But Patroclus never stopped, because he had hesitated, and now his fate was decided for him. (And maybe, just maybe, there was a small part of him that had faith in Achilles’s motives. That understood that Achilles knew Patroclus better then Patroclus knew himself.) He has come too far to give up now.
So he pulls the trigger, kills the cat. So he disassembles his rifle, calmly climbs down the fire escape and slips into the alley-way passage of a forgotten hotel, meets an empty room with a suitcase and a hand-written note. So he opens it, reads it, obeys it. Because what other choice does he have?
Always the same preamble:
Be a good soldier.
And Patroclus tries his best, he really does.
December 18th and he’s in a bar in Madrid with an Algerian woman named Briseis who takes his hand and tells him Achilles will have him back to London by the first of the year. That’s what she says, in adorably accented Spanish. The first of the year. Patroclus doesn’t trust Achilles enough to believe her but he nods, asks if he can rest for a few minutes before heading for the next job, the details of which are enclosed in the folded envelope in his blazer’s pocket. Her skin is even darker than his own, her hands warm and delicate in his. Andrew had told him she was to take over his role as supervisor as soon as he crossed the boarder. She’d been trained by Achilles himself, a luxury no others had ever been granted before her.
She looks at him; expression schooled into something of mild ambivalence, and nods, the white silken fabric of her hijab gifting her eyes an ember-like quality in the bar’s soft light. Couples happily dance around them. The warm breeze filters over the high fence, rustling the thick ivy. A woman throws her head back and laughs, taking her partners forearms and weaves them around her waist in a cripplingly intimate gesture as the singer on stage wails about his passion for a girl with hair light as the sun. Patroclus has an untouched beer in front of him, the multi-hued lights of the garden party throwing shadows over their intertwined hands. Quietly, very quietly, Briseis speaks again.
“You know you can stop, I can help you leave this if it is this what you want.” Her Spanish is tinged with French syntax. He was mistaken, not ambivalence, but well-disguised concern. Maybe it was the dark rings around his eyes, his deteriorating posture, the gravel-like quality of his voice. “I think I understand why Mr. Aeacus calls you Skops.” Patroclus draws his hands back into his lap, blinks a few times at the table, trying to pretend the pet name doesn’t bring back memories he’s tried to forget.
(Paint on the inside of Achilles’s wrist. Cream against red against green. Achilles had bid his farewell with just two fingers tapped against his temple in a mock salute before turning back towards the fire. Good soldier, darling. He’d actually called Patroclus darling.)
He looks up at her and that is all the answer she needs. She sighs.
“I am the floor above you, but do not come to me for anything. In the morning, meet me downstairs. There is a room for you and a change of clothes,” she pushes her own glass of water across the table, drops a room key in front of Patroclus. Briseis stands and brushes imagined dust off the pleats of her skirt. She bends down to grab her purse, tucks it under her arm and gives him a serious look. “Sleep tonight. I do not know how Achilles’s men do this in the East but you are of no use to me now.”
She begins to walk away; Patroclus grabs her wrist as she passes, looking up to her. “Thank you,” his voice feels like gravel in his throat. He’d past the point of being bitter and went into pure exhaustion the second he had to get on that plane from Switzerland to Spain, then hike through ten miles of a war zone to make it to the Aeacus safe house.
Briseis shakes his grip off but grants him a small nod of acknowledgement. In a swirl of navy blue skirts, she’s gone.
Patroclus drinks the water and watches the last few songs, then pulls himself from the table, tucking the key Briseis had gifted him into his back pocket. He’s led upstairs by one of the workers at the bar who refuses to look at him directly in the eye. (You get that a lot, working of Achilles. Grunts like Andrew and Briseis get their own special kind of respect, Patroclus as well once Achilles feels like he’s done toying with him. Hopefully.)
The room is sparse. Just a bed, a cross hanging above the wrought iron headboard, a chest of drawers, a shared bathroom down the hall. Patroclus undresses as soon as the worker closes the door behind them on the way out, turns out the lights, crawls into bed and pulls the covers up to his chin like he used to when he was much younger.
He wants to go home.
It takes him a few moments to realize he doesn’t know where that is anymore.
The job goes bad. Very bad. Patroclus is pretty sure the human body can’t be kicked this many times and still go on functioning. Also he’s pretty sure they’ve broken all of his ribs. Possibly a few of his fingers, too.
At least Briseis was able to get away; at least she wasn’t curled here on the concrete beside him.
(One of the men has the toe of their Italian leather dress shoe pressed against Patroclus’s throat, one of them says something in Russian and spits on his face.)
Patroclus thinks about how must of a nuisance this is going to be to clean up, he should know, he’s had to do that more then once. Then thinks about blood and cement always seem to find intimate partners in one another whenever Achilles is involved in anything. Then he starts thinking about Achilles. Because why not, he was going to die anyway, might as well.
His life doesn’t really flash before his eyes, more like flickers and fades.
The low drawn out timber of good soldier, said with a glint of humor as if it were a whispered joke between just the two of them. How when Patroclus had said something about his service in that little café three blocks away from the gallery, Achilles’s eyes had softened until they were nothing but green. A feigned reaction, he knows now. But at that moment it had meant the world to Patroclus.
(The man with his foot on Patroclus’s neck jogs his knee up and down, as if testing how much weight it might take to break something important.)
Christ, he knew the man for two days at most and now he was dying for him. Shakespeare would have wet himself over something like this.
(The man makes a comment to his friend with a sneer, Patroclus’s hands weakly scrabble at the Russian’s pant leg, but he manages to bare his bloodied teeth to snarl back. He moves his elbow and something hard presses into his ribcage. It is in this moment that Patroclus realizes he’s an idiot that deserves to die if he was only able to find this now with darkness creeping across the edges of his vision. The Russian jogs his knee up and down again, Patroclus makes a choking sound at the back of his throat. He is thankful when one of the other men kicks his side again, sending sparks across his vision but also giving Patroclus the excuse to hold his side, brushing the tips of his fingers over the hard press of the hilt at his side.)
Briseis had promised an end to his service less than twelve hours ago. The first, the New Year. Then she had gifted him a bed, a night’s rest. He should have seen this inevitable death with these few kindnesses. Achilles doesn’t keep men that ask for sleep.
But Briseis—beautiful, wonderful, Briseis—had granted him one last kindness.
A knife. Sewn into the lining of the leather jacket Briseis had given him the night before.
(Patroclus has to stab himself to get it through the thin layer of silk, can only feel something warm and wet start spreading across his side through the adrenaline, the white-hot anger of his bruising torso. One of the Russians spits out a word that sounds like a curse, stepping backwards as Patroclus’s blood reaches his shoes. The pressure is released from his throat. Words fly between the two men, accusatory, most likely at the fact that the cleanup job for this just got a whole lot harder. Patroclus rolls to one side, hides the hand slowly working the blade free of the slit he’d made in the lining by curling into himself and making only half-faked retching sounds.)
He is going to kiss that woman the next time he sees her, if there’s a next time. Achilles is just going to find another way to get rid of him, but it never hurts to be optimistic. Patroclus remembers the feeling of her hands under his, the gentle way in which her accent played over her serious words.
(The one that had his foot on Patroclus’s throat is still standing above him. Patroclus retches again as he grasps the face of the blade with his thumb and index finger, drawing it through the slit in the fabric. His fist wraps around the hilt. The shoe becomes reintroduced with the back of his skull, pressing his face into pavement, rolling his cheek into the gritty surface of the concrete.)
Patroclus remembers his mother’s laugh, the exquisite way she’d lift each gift his father bought them and inspect it as if she was worried it would break under too cruel a grip. She would sing, Patroclus can barely recall what it felt like to lay his head against her chest and hear her words vibrate. Patroclus remembers how his father’s flame was what lay waste to her soft nature.
(The knife’s hilt presses reassuringly into his palm, he grits his teeth and blindly swings upwards and it hits something and it meets skin that gives into the momentum of his arm and he’s driving the blade into the Russian’s kneecap and he’s using the heel of his palm to push at the side of the knife and he hears something pop and tear and someone’s screaming and—)
Patroclus remembers candied fruit, and the time he and his school friends had taken a trip to the beach. One of the boys brought their father’s gun, Patroclus had to pretend he’d never fired a round in his life. He’d still hit every glass bottle they’d lined up as targets, because he wanted to impress a boy with green eyes and freckled skin and a shy smile that made Patroclus’s chest go warm.
(He pulls the knife free and struggles to his feet. The world dips and sways, he can’t see for a moment but lurches forward and slashes blindly anyway. The second Russian counters, shoving Patroclus to the ground with the whole of his body. Patroclus’s knee gives out; he catches a punch to the side of his face for this misstep. Back to the cement again, Patroclus doesn’t think he can get air into his lungs. The Russian reaches for something at the back of his pants.)
Achilles has eyes like that boy, could fake a shy smile without the bat of an eye. Looking at Achilles gave Patroclus a feeling as though every piece of art, every written line, had been a delicate recreation. Looking at Achilles was being guided through each genuine artifact for the first time.
(The Russian that still has both kneecaps presses his gun to Patroclus’s temple. The gun is useless; they’d wasted whatever ammunition they had when Briseis made her escape. Six shots. He counted.)
Patroclus remembers war, he remembers the distant aching feeling in his chest, he remembers being dragged through the mud by a dislocated shoulder. He remembers closing eyes and bringing back the images of his mother, the gifts, the fruit sweet on his tongue, the boy and his eyes and his small smile.
(The man that’s trying to kill him has a black eye and smells like a woman’s perfume. Patroclus thinks maybe this is what makes him fight so hard. He still twists his wrist so the blade lays flush with his inner forearm and knocks the gun away, lunging forward and burying the blade into the Russian’s groin. The man shrieks, drives his fist into the corner of Patroclus’s jaw. His head snaps back, white stars burst across his vision, he presses forward anyway, using what little strength he has left to bowl the Russian over.)
So now he opens his eyes and thinks about the man that is going to kill him.
Not the one writhing against the knee he’s planted at his sternum, eyes wild and nostrils flared, the fear radiating off of him that of a spooked horse, frantic and wild and uncontainable. Not the man whose blood mixes with Patroclus’s own, whose eyes are bright with fear and pain and sorrow.
Patroclus tears memories free, basks in the light of a smile, an elegantly positioned hand. Green eyes and marble skin, the curve of a sculpted clavicle, a smear of brilliant color at the base of a wrist. All Achilles, the beam of his words, the serpent’s tongue that could tear Rome down if he so wished, all Achilles and the vivid stretch of his canvas. The man he has pinned to the ground in an alley way is there because Achilles wants Patroclus dead.
Patroclus isn’t going to allow him to celebrate that victory. Not yet.
The knife’s point rests at the base of the Russian’s throat; Patroclus seals one hand over the hilt, the other securing the man’s arms above his head. Years ago, he’d held a green-eyed boy like this and fucked him into the mattress. Back then he wouldn’t have used a word as cruel as that, but that was what it had been, an animal collapsing of bodies, of pulled hair and bared teeth. Now, he spits on the face of a man ordered to kill him and eases a blade upwards, into his throat. One, slow, push as blood wells around the blade, as its gleaming silver glory slides through jugular, punctures windpipe. When the Russian is too weak to try and throw him off, Patroclus removes his hand from around his wrists and pushes the butt of the knife with his palm, gives an visceral release of breath through gritted teeth until only the hilt protrudes, framed on either side by two collarbones. Patroclus sits back.
The man is still trying to pull air through his eviscerated windpipe, gurgling around gore, and Patroclus leans back and watches. And blinks slowly. And struggles to his feet. And takes the gun left on the ground, tucking it into the back of his pants. And limps to the man’s partner who lies unconscious, clutching his injured leg. And finishes him off, too, bracing a hand against the alley’s brick wall for support as he drives the heel of his boot down. And rubber sole meets skull meets concrete and rubber sole meets skull meets concrete.
Briseis answers the phone of the hotel with a soft inquiry; Patroclus can barely choke out the address of the payphone, vision already blackening from the time that the hotel’s reception had made him wait to get her on the line. She hesitates for a second, probably weighing the options between disobeying a direct order from Achilles or letting Patroclus bleed out in some inconspicuous pay phone in the middle of Madrid. Patroclus releases a shaking breath when she orders him to stay wherever he is, leaning his head back against the glass door of the booth.
He doesn’t know how much time passes, just that at some point a black car rolls slowly down the street, stopping at the corner and waiting there, headlights blinding. Holding his bleeding side, each breath welcoming shattered glass to his ribcage, Patroclus hobbles towards the car. He raises a forearm to shield his eyes, almost falls when he stumbles from the sidewalk into the street.
The door of the car opens with one sharp tug of his hand, a patient voice giving no greeting. “If you get any blood on the leather, Achilles’s rage will be the least of your problems.” Her English was better than her Spanish.
Briseis has gone through the trouble of covering the back seat with newspapers. As if he were the new family dog in danger of peeing on the carpet. If Patroclus could breathe correctly he might have found some sort of humor in it. Or annoyance. He is too tired to really do anything but collapse into the car, pulling the door shut with only a slight moan at the tension it pulls across his torso. The newspapers crinkle under him; he rests his head against the window and closes his eyes.
She gives quiet instructions to the driver, and Patroclus flits in and out of consciousness as the car slowly moves down the streets, the only source of light an orange hued glow wrapping around the features of the car with every passed streetlamp. Time passes fluidly; he thinks he can remember someone having difficulty hauling him from the street and onto the sidewalk, his pained groan of protest. His head resting against something cold and hard, the sound of retreating footsteps and tires hitting cobblestone.
They leave him outside of a general hospital at two in the morning, half-dead, face pressed against the glass doors as a lovely surprise for the receptionist to find. That’s what the nurse tells him, when he wakes two days later.
“Gave us quite the fright,” the woman is a mother of three, speaks from her belly and takes up the entire room with her movements. “All slumped over like that, thought you were going to quit on us. Poor thing.”
She says that a lot. Patroclus doesn’t know what it is about his demeanor that demands a pet name to be prescribed to him. She’s too happy to correct, prancing around his bedside, fixing the bandages at his side. The self-inflicted knife wound wasn’t serious to need more than a couple of stitches, six broken ribs, a minor concussion—he’d had worse.
Well, not all on his body at one time, but still.
The nurse redresses his wound, pats his head with a good-natured “rest well”, and closes the curtain. No inquires about his name. No mentions of payment. Briseis must have handled it after leaving him there.
His chest feels light, there’s no more pain, the chattering sounds of a busy hospital are almost as muted and the continuous drip of his morphine pole. Every time he closes his eyes it seems like time passes, a few minutes or hours or days he can’t even tell. Just the little things change, the amount of light hitting the curtains, the positioning of his sheets or the equipment or a half-eaten meal resting on his lap that he doesn’t remember chewing. If he doesn’t ever like what he sees, he can just close his eyes and it’ll be gone the next time they open. It’s nice. It keeps his thoughts down, his sleep is dreamless. He doesn’t have to think about what he’s done, or what he has yet to do. Doesn’t have to analyze the small part of himself he let go however many nights ago he’d taken the lives of two men.
Until he wakes with a dry mouth and a pounding headache, a sharp pain in his arm along with the dull ache of his chest and stomach. His eyes fly open, Patroclus attempts to blink away the darkness as the figure at his bedside slowly comes to focus.
Briseis, one hand holding what used to be his IV drip; the other grips his arm, the nail of her thumb digging into where the needle used to be in his arm. Not the kind of wakeup call he really wanted. Patroclus grits his teeth, shakes her grip off and uses a fistful of the sheet tangled around his legs to wipe up the blood that has welled to the surface.
A moment of silence while Patroclus mulls over what’s best to say, he closes his eyes and hopes when he opens them again she can be gone. Hopes he can sleep for just a while longer, immediately realizes how cowardly that desire was. (And isn’t that why he’s doing all this in the first place? To prove he is not weak?) He opens his eyes again. “Thank you, for the knife.”
Briseis’s eyes glimmer with the sullen nature of the hospital’s night-lights, just the barest soft glow penetrating the thin material of Patroclus’s privacy curtains. She tilts her head to the side slightly, the warm brown of her hijab matching the ornately patterned red skirt, her loose white blouse buttoned neatly at the wrists. She swipes her thumb across the sheets, leaving a russet stain, and drops the IV line, tilting her head to the side. “I do not know what you speak of.”
She could never admit to helping Patroclus escape, but the gentle way in which she pushes back his curls with a soft hand is acceptance enough. Patroclus has to resist leaning into the touch, the persistent throbbing of his arm a reminder of how fast that tenderness can turn. If he ever doubted Achilles trained Briseis himself, this moment would be proof enough. Sharp then soft, always at the apex of the dichotomy between cruel and kind. What was the line? Look like th’ innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t? Something like that.
It takes a while for her to remove her hand, when she does she folds each over her stomach, taking a long look over the exposed parts of Patroclus’s torso, the skin more mottled black and blue than its usual deep olive. Patroclus sets his jaw and waits for her to speak, eyes slightly narrowed in challenge. She huffs something under her breath and leans down to rummage through the purse she’d placed at her feet, throws an envelope onto his stomach.
Patroclus closes his eyes again, leans his head against the pillows, and takes a shuttered deep breath through his nose. He doesn’t like the way the simultaneous feelings of nausea and excitement grip his gut.
He opens the envelope with shaking fingers, the first thing to fall out being a long rectangle of pulp paper, the face of which is printed red, white type announcing a New Year’s gala celebrating Achilles’s opening in a much more public gallery than the hole in the wall where they first met.
On the back, without fail, is Achilles’s looping script. Think the wounded soldier can catch me?
Briseis drops something small into in his lap, closes her purse and leaves with only the whisper of the curtains falling shut behind her. Patroclus has to make the physical effort to keep from crumpling the piece of paper, unable to tear his eyes from Briseis’s final gift.
Feathers of intricately molded pieces of metal, each individually painted to give the semblance of real fibrous pieces of hair, twin peaks of the plumes curving upwards to form two horns. Two identical pairs of hollow eyes stare back at him, the cufflinks barely heavy enough to be swallowed by the sheets Briseis had dropped them in.
Skops, Peleus had called him. Owl.
Patroclus pulls himself from bed, the cufflinks clenched firmly in the palm of his hand.
He finds he doesn’t like being around crowds of people. Patroclus has been back in London for an entire week and he almost forgot how much he hates the noise of things. The drunken brawls outside the room he’s renting from a crooked old woman who smells like cabbage, the constant need to shield his ears in the morning from the obtrusive passing cars and sirens. Neither Achilles nor Briseis nor Andrew have made the slightest attempts at communicating with him, not since Madrid.
But he’s able to sleep in, to run to the Commissary for breakfast and make himself tea every morning.
He’s able to sit and try to get himself re-acquainted with the real world. How to act normal, a controlled member of a respective society. Sit on the stone steps of a church and just observe. People laugh from their stomach when they’re comfortable with someone else, Patroclus likes it when he sees this. Just because a couple holds hands in public doesn’t mean either party is remotely interested in the other, Patroclus knows that feeling, but is intimately familiar with something far worse. When there is a group of boys, their voices loud and the jeers malicious, Patroclus wants to shrink in on himself until he is nothing but dust.
New Year’s Eve, he stays out long after the sun sets. It rains and he seeks shelter under the imposing marble columns of a church, staring out over the small square, hands tucked into the breast of his jacket to keep them warm. A girl who looks nothing like Briseis but shares her same kind breath, rushes from the church and offers him a chipped mug of tea, waving away his confused look and hurrying back inside as soon as his hands wrapped around the cup.
New observation: there are some people prone to obstinate kindness. Patroclus wishes he had the liberty to be one of them.
He goes to a baker operating out of her kitchen; the small apartment the old woman has sent him to every morning without fail for his week’s stay smells of flour and rain. She glances up from the paper she’s reading, motions him in from where he stands at the flat’s slightly ajar door. She flicks tired eyes to the table, where loaves of bread are wrapped in newspapers declaring the horror of the home front, the need to believe in mother England during its darkest period. Patroclus leaves his money on the table, gives a silent nod of thanks before ducking out the door, bread tucked under his jacket against the rain.
Patroclus opens the door to the flat as quietly as he can, leaves the bread as well as his week’s worth of rent on the kitchen table. He doesn’t know if he’s coming back, after tonight. He doesn’t know a lot of things about what might happen tonight.
When he opens the door, a tuxedo is immaculately positioned over the quilt of his bed, a shining pair of shoes on the floor. No note. No open window or sign of entry. Patroclus takes a deep breath before getting dressed, securing the cufflinks in the mirror, refusing to meet his own eyes.
He finds he doesn’t like being around crowds of people even more when he’s expected to interact with them, Patroclus is pretty certain he’d take the Russians again rather than withstand this.
The hall, a grand thing Peleus had rented for the occasion, is situated in the middle of London, barely touched by the worst of the bombings. Patroclus feels small just walking up the steps, can barely convince himself to show his invitation to the guards. (He has to spend a while smoking a cigarette outside, talk himself down from the nervous patter in his chest.) The second his shoe meets marble he’s surrounded by women with pearl smiles and silver-scaled evening gowns, men in suits with vicious laughs and loosely handled champagne glasses, photographers milling around, only snapping a shot when clusters of people look to be having a violently good time. (Patroclus, immediately, feeling absolutely sickened at the prospect of being photographed, attempts to look as miserable as he feels. It isn’t hard.)
Works of art predating the very building itself hang from the walls, the elegant sweeping of marble floors into columns stretching towards an immeasurably high, arched ceilings—Patroclus doesn’t know how Achilles has gained such the following over the past few months but it’s impressive. He considers leaving, proving his father right, accepting defeat.
A small hand wraps around his elbow and Patroclus starts before recognizing the woman that has drawn to his side. Briseis shoots him a smile that barely suggests her true annoyance. “You’re late.” She speaks through gritted teeth, gives a light tug at his elbow to guide him down the hall and through some of the main rooms. Patroclus snags a glass of champagne from a waiter’s silver tray before answering.
“By almost three hours, last time I checked,” he lets himself be pulled along, nursing his drink, trying to contain his amusement at the prospect that he’s somehow managed to fluster Achilles’s former pupil.
She mumbles something in a language he can’t comprehend under her breath, the grip on Patroclus’s arm not slackening as she pulls him into the conservatory. Not as bubbling with people, only small groups murmuring around the lily pond, a woman’s dress matching the color of a palm frond taller than she is. She laughs into her hand at something one of her companions say as Briseis pulls him to the other side of the room, his ribs aching as she jerks him around the corner, positions the two of them in front of the portrait of some long dead philosophe.
“I don’t understand why you have this death wish, but I’m telling you now that I want no part of it.” Briseis’s nails dig into his forearm; Patroclus takes another sip of his champagne, coolly attempting to examine the piece before them. “You are not strong enough for this. I gave you means of an escape, you could have gotten out of there and disappeared—”
“If you don’t mind.”
Both Patroclus and Briseis stiffen. He feels ill, he feels caught in a trap he’s not going to get out of. The weight of Briseis’s hand on his arm disappears, Patroclus slides one hand into the pocket of his slacks, consciously keeps the grip on the stem of his glass loose, tries to set his shoulders back, feign a state of rest. He keeps his eyes adamantly trained on the portrait before him, studying the broad sweeps of fabric wrapped around the man’s shoulders, the regal positioning of his jaw. He looks the type to denounce the existence of a god while simultaneously praising the rights of the white man.
When the sweeping ghost of a figure idles up beside him, just the slightest brush of their shoulders marking Briseis’s place being taken, Patroclus has to suppress the rolling feeling of his stomach by closing his eyes. Patroclus finds himself wondering if this is what it is to stand beside a lion.
“You left quite the clean up in Madrid,” Achilles’s voice hasn’t changed, still that rolling twang, as if he’s hinting at a joke, a secret punch line. “I didn’t know how much you were holding yourself back.”
“Always happy to impress,” Patroclus does his best to put on the façade of composure with words alone. “Thank you for the gifts.”
Patroclus’s entire body goes cold. “The tux fits you well.”
“Shocked that you got the measurements correct by sight alone.”
If Patroclus didn’t know any better he might have mistaken the scoff that comes from Achilles’s lips as a laugh.
He decides to get straight to the point. “I want to be stationed in the city. No more running around doing your silly little errands for weeks on end. I’ll keep the flat I’m staying in and commute to you whenever I have a job, your men will keep out of that flat. No more gifts. You can pay me at the end of every month, or from job to job. Doesn’t really matter to me.” As long as he keeps his voice even and posture consistent, Achilles wont be able to know how fast his pulse is racing, how sick it makes him to stay in one spot, stare down the same ancient visionary wearing a stupid hat—
Patroclus thinks Achilles might be smiling. That sucks every thought from his head.
“You would have found another way to kill me, if that’s what you really wanted to do.” Patroclus thinks this may have been the boldest thing he’s said in his life. He pushes forward before his heartbeat is able to drown out what he came here to say. “So what is it that you want from me?”
And he looks at Achilles. And he finds it foolish for him to have ever thought to compare this living beast of a man to a young love. Achilles’s eyes are nothing but green and sardonic, ice and fire, bright and dark. A dichotomy of amusement and violence.
Achilles doesn’t speak for a long time. Patroclus holds his gaze, doesn’t put up resistance as Achilles takes his glass from his hand, drowns the rest of the champagne, gives the empty glass back to Patroclus and turns to the painting again.
“You’re mine now.” Achilles clasps his hands behind his back, the words said calmly, as if there was no meaning to them whatsoever.
Simple as that.
His days follow a schedule, after that. In the mornings he makes the hour-long commute to the Aeacus Estates, eats his breakfast on the train, engages in short conversation with whatever driver Achilles sends to pick him up from the station. Patroclus’s work now mainly centers around standing imposingly behind Achilles while he hosts meetings with clients, sometimes Achilles sends him out on missions that last several days, sometimes he’s dismissed as soon as he arrives to the quaint little office attached to Achilles’s studio.
His favorite days are when he’s assigned to look over Peleus as his son runs their little empire. Peleus is not as cold, does not hold the same maliciousness as his child. He loves to discuss literature and laughs freely, tries to prompt Patroclus into familiar patterns of speech every time he speaks formally. He never asks Patroclus about his jobs, never even acknowledges Achilles as his son, Peleus could have been an old professor connecting with a former student for all anyone else knew.
Oh, and polo. Every time Achilles gets more than a little frustrated with the way a certain job plays out (cleanup done messily, a hit gone bad, involvement of the police or rival businesses) it’s to the fields just over the ridge of the estate’s vista. “Polo”, also, is a very vague term disguising the fact that Achilles needs to take his anger out on something that moves. Fast. With a mallet. Patroclus had no idea how dangerous the game could be until Achilles “accidentally” misses a swing one foggy morning and hits one of the men (of his own team) in the shoulder.
Patroclus risks being crushed by his own horse trying to avoid the man thrown into the dirt, the mare heaves a distressed sound as Patroclus pulls back on the reins before easing her into a halt. He climbs down and runs the rest of the way towards the injured man—he doesn’t know his name, but Patroclus kneels beside him anyway, puts a hand on the shoulder that hadn’t taken the blunt of Achilles’s foolish anger. He thinks he hears the horses stop moving, all but one, which rides up along to where Patroclus kneels, the thoroughbred gives a flustered snort before his rider speaks.
“He’s fine,” Achilles’s voice is gruff, still rolling with the same spiteful tone in which he announced the commencement of the game. “Get back on your horse. I want to finish this—”
“He has torn rotator cuff and a shattered collarbone at the least,” Patroclus spits out, glaring up at Achilles. “Sir.” He adds, levels Achilles’s narrowed eyes with a glare of his own. The man beneath him tries to lift himself up and goes white as a sheet, a thin sheet of sweat glistening at his brow, his arm hanging limply at his side.
Without breaking eye contact, Achilles orders the other men back to the house. Someone takes Patroclus’s horse for him, another swings down and helps the fallen man off the ground, heaving him back up onto his own horse to ride back to the house, probably call an ambulance. Only after the sound of hooves beating against immaculately shorn grass dissipates does Achilles speak again.
“I don’t think you understand how this operation works.” The horse gives a sharp whinny, shaking her head and pawing at the ground. Achilles keeps her controlled with a leather-gloved fist wrapped tightly around the reigns. “When I tell you to do something, you obey me.” Achilles jumps from his horse in one graceful move, walks over to stand before Patroclus, eyes hard and sharp as gemstones. It has taken Patroclus weeks of conditioning not to flinch under that stare. “When I tell you to eat, you eat. When I tell you to sleep, you sleep. You are not yourself, not anymore. You are who I say you are—”
Patroclus rolls his eyes. “When I ask you to jump you should say ‘how high?’ yada yada. My drill instructor already gave me the whole speech. Save your breath, Aeacus.” Achilles has the look on his face like he isn’t one to be interrupted often. Patroclus finds himself just pissed off enough not to care. He rolls what he wishes to say around in his head before speaking again, letting the shocked silence span between them. “How I see it is that you need me. That’s why you’ve kept me alive this long, that’s why I’m the one you’ve assigned to attend to Peleus, that’s why I can stop one of your silly little polo games. You didn’t know who I was until you found me in that gallery, but you’ve known for your entire life the legacy my father has left behind. You need me for that reason alone. I was raised by a man like you, Achilles Aeacus. All you want to be is remembered. Everything else is just a causality of living.”
He’s out of breath by the time he’s finished and still kneeling. Achilles looks like Patroclus has just struck him, then quickly regains his composure. “Go home.”
Patroclus blinks, not expecting that response. “What?”
“Go. Home. Patroclus.” Achilles bites out each word, turns heel and mounts his horse. “You’ll have a job in the morning. I have no use for you now.” The fog, an omnipresent beast, envelops Achilles as soon as he passes over this first hill. Patroclus is left, muddy and confused, kneeling in the dirt.
Patroclus knows someone has been in his room before he opens his eyes. His back is cold, the window is open, and Patroclus doesn’t smoke enough in here for the smell of tobacco to be this strong.
He peels one eye open, immediately sees the gift that’s been left. A brick, holding down a lock of mousy brown hair and a message scrawled on notepad paper. Just an address, a brisk: The dear’s seen too much, take care of it. No innuendos, no pet names. Take care of it. Simple enough.
The house is small but quaint with yellow shutters and a front yard and a white-fucking-picket fence. The radio is playing inside; Patroclus thinks he can hear someone preparing a meal, a high-pitched laugh. A little boy is playing with a tin soldiers on the front lawn, couldn’t be more than eleven.
A little boy with mousy brown hair is playing with tin soldiers on the front lawn, couldn’t be more than eleven.
Oh. Patroclus thinks.
The boy (with pudgy fingers and mousy brown hair and Christ he can’t be older than eleven he’s still a boy how could he—) marches a soldier forward, mimes the actions of artillery fire, his lips just whispering the sounds he thinks these acts might make. He grabs grass with one fist and throws it up and into the air to mimic an explosion. (He’s painted little flags onto each soldier’s shoulder. They never came like that, Patroclus knows he’d spent time painting each individual stripe, each star and cross.)
From inside, a woman, presumably his mother, calls. “Clysonymus! Your lunch is almost ready sweetheart!”
The brick is heavy in Patroclus’s hand.
It rains in the morning; coming down so forcefully the streets are almost flooded, washing down the pavement, washing down Patroclus’s shoulders, the tired slope of his neck. He lets the train pass him twice before stepping on, he keeps his eyes trained to the floor, he keeps his mouth shut in the car ride to the estate. He keeps his mouth shut all day. None of Achilles’s staff will meet is eyes, Peleus doesn’t even look up from the book he’s reading when Patroclus enters the room.
At noon he stands at Achilles’s left shoulder and stares into empty space as Achilles plans a heist with two ex-military men. Again, he’s reduced to a nameless grunt, just a menacing presence as Achilles manages every aspect of his advancing legacy, the Terror of London.
He gives money to a prostitute on his walk home. Afterwards, he doesn’t know why he thought this would leave him feeling any less hollow.
In the morning, it rains. Patroclus pulls himself from bed, walks to the train station, stands beside Achilles and doesn’t speak. He’s careful with his words.
“Mr. Aeacus wishes to see you,” barely a wisp of a girl presses a delicate finger to Patroclus’s forearm. Her dark hair is pulled away from a bird-like face in a tight bun, still slightly out of breath from the run down the stairs. Patroclus stands, tries to disguise the wince he gives with a roll of his sore shoulders. Achilles had him out digging graves since he arrived this morning. Three separate hits for three separate reasons. But Achilles doesn’t send Patroclus around killing people anymore, keeps him closer to the house.
The estate is buzzing with staff cleaning up after Easter dinner, the house now empty of the thirty-six invited guests left to brave the way home in the storm. Patroclus steps out of the way of two men carrying the remains of a dead hog on a silver platter before he climbs the main staircase to Peleus’s office. It’s raining too hard outside for Achilles to take refuge in his studio, which probably meant he’d been pacing and throwing things all evening by the slightly terrified look on the maid’s face. Achilles hates behind cooped up in the main house, hates having to stay in one place for too long, forced to keep up the same face of the pleasant chairman’s son.
She opens the door for him; Patroclus gives a slight nod of thanks, ducking inside, shutting the door quietly behind him. His boot immediately rolls over broken glass, Achilles’s voice loud and slurred over the gramophone playing Arthur Fields at an obnoxiously loud volume.
“You’ve gotten boring,” he’s draped over the chaise, limbs long and languid, head lolling over the arm of the chair. “Ever since I’ve broken you in it’s no fun trying to mess with you. So submissive now, Pa-tro-clus. No bite in you at all.”
And you’re drunk. Patroclus holds his tongue, kneels down and begins picking up the shattered pieces of glass, dropping them in a pile to make the cleanup easier for the maid. Of course, when Achilles gets drunk he just gets more calculating, freer of tongue. His annunciation is still impeccable, but his eyes are half-lidded, barely focused. He closes them for a moment, making a sound low in his throat and Patroclus momentarily forgets what he’s doing, forgets how to breathe. The long shard of glass pinched between his thumb and forefinger falls back to the ground, Patroclus shakes his head, goes back to gathering the crystalline fragments. The room is ice cold, the windows and the French doors opening to the balcony all flung open, welcoming the frigid mist of rain, the curtains whipping in the wind.
Achilles, having seemingly crushed an entire set of glasses with the frustrations of the day, has reverted to drinking scotch straight out of the bottle. He takes swigs from the bottle with the same elegant indifference in which he regards Patroclus.
“Poor darling soldier boy, all lost and without a home. What do you even do with the money I give you? That little old woman certainly can’t be charging that much—or, oh!” Achilles gives a hic of a soft gasp, a mocking sudden realization, laced with carnal undertones that have Patroclus clenching his jaw. “Do you spend it all on those girls, do you? I saw that last one you brought back, she must have emptied your wallet. Great tits, I bet her mouth—”
“Sir,” he grinds out, eyes fixed to the floor, breathing controlled. He does not like Achilles like this, does not like the nervous feeling in his chest. Patroclus moves to close the balcony doors, then works on wrestling the latches shut on the windows. The room grows a little less chaotic, Fields’s voice still whines away, the grating static of the gramophone not aiding with the nervous ache of Patroclus’s stomach. Achilles is dangerous. Inebriated Achilles is terrifying.
“The trains aren’t running,” Achilles slides a hand into his half-buttoned dress shirt to scratch his ribs. Patroclus flicks his eyes away and goes about trying to start a fire, his back burning with a cold green gaze. “You can prepare a room for yourself for tonight. Ask a maid where the linen pantry is.”
Patroclus crumples newspaper in his fist and shoves it under freshly cut logs. He lights a match, watches the thin blade of light flare upwards for a moment before throwing it into the fire. “Thank you, sir.” Patroclus pulls himself up with a hand on the mantle, sets on righting the papers that Achilles had scattered across the ground.
When he turns, Achilles is asleep, now-empty scotch bottle held to his chest like a child, lips slightly parted, features lax. He looks the same, an icy exterior behind those paper-thin lids hiding eyes that could burn and rebuild empires, lips that murmur a hushed breath on every exhale. Patroclus doesn’t think those Romantic writers had seen anyone like Achilles when they wrote of the youthful innocence brought on by sleep, the cunning nature of a strategically twitched brow, a drunkenly low sound made at the back of the throat—no, Patroclus would never describe Achilles as innocent, but this was… something else. Something he had never seen on Achilles before.
Patroclus straightens and pulls the cashmere throw draped across the back of the chaise over Achilles. The fire will chase away rest of the cold.
He closes the door quietly behind him, asks the maid that came to fetch him if she could show him where he should sleep for the night. She nods, eyes wide, quietly inquires if Achilles has calmed down. Patroclus’s laugh comes out more of a bark then anything else, feels as though that’s answer enough.
She blinks a few times before scurrying ahead, taking a set of sheets from the pantry at the end of the hall before motioning Patroclus up a set of stairs. The girl reminds him when breakfast will be served and unlocks one of the doors, rushing in and quickly making the bed. Patroclus stands to the side, leans against one of the walls to disguise the exhaustion pulling at every movement he makes.
“Will you require any other services, sir?” Her voice is so meek Patroclus can barely hear her over rain.
“What’s your name?” Patroclus moves to sit on the edge of the bed, kicking off mud-caked boots. She inhales sharply, the bony expanse of her shoulders shrinking inwards, the flutter of her breast through the thin material of her uniform.
Patroclus heaves a sigh and rubs a hand over his face. “Deidameia, if Achilles ever tells you to fuck someone to get information out of them, just don’t. It doesn’t work and he’s only going to keep asking you to do this to get you out of his hair.” He speaks through his splayed fingers, resting his elbows on his knees and looking back up at her.
It’s amazing how different someone can look with a change of posture, the sharpening of an expertly crafted veneer. He’s gotten better at spotting a façade when he sees one. Deidameia stares down at him with the disdain one might have for a rotting carcass, the icy gaze with which she looks Patroclus over should have made him feel more than just a slight twinge of annoyance.
Patroclus heaves a sigh, rubs a hand over the back of his aching neck. “Get out. Please.”
He’s surprised she doesn’t audibly hiss. The door slams shut. Patroclus pulls himself up from the bed and leaves his clothes in a muddy pile on the floor of the adjoined bathroom. He stands under the spray of the showerhead until the water no longer runs gray with grime, gets out and dries off. When he steps back into the room, someone (presumably a certain angered maid) has unceremoniously dropped a change of clothes for the next day on the floor. Patroclus kicks them to the side, collapses onto a bed that probably costs more than everything he owns. Sleep comes instantly, a heady wave of darkness that envelops every sore muscle, every aching limb.
In the early morning, he thinks he hears his door open. Patroclus peels a single bleary eye open and sees the shadow of a figure leaning against his doorframe, a broad rectangle of light stretching across the floor of the otherwise darkened room. It stays there, shifts from foot to foot as if deciding whether or not to do something. Patroclus makes a questioning sound, somewhat starting to regain his senses, the feeling of being watched sending his pulse flying. He jolts up, holding himself on a propped forearm, and the door slams shut. Patroclus hesitates momentarily before he rolls over and goes back to sleep.
He wakes with the sun scaling the ridges of the pine-peaked mountains. The only hints of the storm that had plagued the countryside the day before come in the wisps of clouds twisting over a pink-hued horizon, illuminated in brilliant orange light. It takes a moment for Patroclus to remember where he is, what had happened the night before. Ever since I’ve broken you in, it’s no fun trying to mess with you. Christ, did Achilles really say that?
(The voice at the back of his head: did you really let him say that?)
Patroclus stays in bed until the skies turn a bright cerulean, giving one heavy-lidded look to the clock before pulling on the cloths Deidameia had left on the floor. A worn navy argyle, black slacks—he’s taller than Achilles but other than a slight tightness in his shoulders everything fits. He secures the watch he’d left on the nightstand around his wrist as he jogs down the stairs, nodding a good morning to the staff.
Peleus already sits at the head of the table, shouts a loud greeting to Patroclus as he enters the dining room, ordering Patroclus to sit with a wave of his hand. There’s enough food on the table to feed the entirety of the household, Patroclus can’t help but think of the rations line at the Commissary, how his landlord barely gets enough to feed herself day in and out. He settles for two pieces of toast, a cup of black coffee. The same stuffed fox that rests on the mantle place stares him down, the Rembrandt just as imposing as ever. Soon it would almost be a year since he first sat in this room and began his service with the Aeacus Empire, he doesn’t know how that makes him feel.
“The tracks are absolutely dreadful out there today, landslide over by the station. No one was hurt, thank the Lord.” Peleus stabs at a piece of egg on his plate. “They’ve got men digging out the worst of it, sent one of the boys up there to check it out and get us the morning papers.” That’s what Peleus calls them, ‘the boys’. Casual, feigning innocence as to why Patroclus or any of them are here. “He said they’ll most likely have it all cleared by the end of the day if it stays as clear as this.” He takes a bite of his meal, chews carefully and swallows before continuing. “Did you rest well, Skops?”
The front page declares a Japanese Navy air attack on Ceylon. Patroclus takes a sip of his coffee. “Very well, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Achilles told me you celebrated your Easter with that lovely woman you’re renting a room from,” Peleus reaches across the table. “How did your celebrations go last night? Dreadfully sorry he had to call you in so late, I assume the matter was crucially important.”
Three hits, three graves. Patroclus slips easily into the white lie, as though it were a game to volley the little innocent inventions of a less sinister world between the two of them. “I did, it was very kind of her to invite me to her table. Her son was deployed, I think she just wanted the company. How were your celebrations?”
Peleus takes this opportunity to launch into a story using names of people Patroclus is expected to already know, animatedly gesturing with his fork. Achilles takes this moment to make his entrance, snatching Patroclus’s paper from him as he rounds the table to kiss his father’s temple in greeting. He slips into the seat across from Patroclus, filling a glass with water, the dark shadows under his eyes the only sign that this was the same man that had fallen asleep cuddling a liquor bottle. He reaches across the table to take a piece of Patroclus’s half-eaten toast, holding it in his mouth and winking at him before piling the rest of his plate with food. Patroclus has to physically keep himself from snarling across the table by digging a nail into his knee.
He takes a small sip of coffee, pretending to listen to what Peleus is saying. Achilles smiles pleasantly from across the table, interjecting with his own comments about the sugar trust’s elite, the state of undress they’d found one of the members in, petty gossip disguised under good humor.
“I want to go for a ride today.” Achilles pushes himself from the table, wipes his mouth with a napkin and throws it on the plate. “Will you need my assistance with anything, Father, or may I bring Patroclus along with me?”
Patroclus stands, schools his features into ease while his thoughts run every possibility as to what Achilles could want. He’d had his punishment—the others wont even look at him after that fucking polo game. He hadn’t done anything last night that threatened Achilles’s power unless… Unless Achilles could remember Patroclus had interrupted him? Could someone be that drunk and actually remember specifics? Could he really be that angry after all Patroclus has done for him?
Peleus waves his son away. “Of course, of course.”
If that was a declaration for his execution, Patroclus hopes it’s quick and clean. (Patroclus doesn’t deserve it quick and clean, but he hopes anyway.)
They take one of the trails up into the mountains, Achilles keeps his horse under tight control, running her until her mouth froths, her sides shuttering with exhaustion. (Patroclus is all too familiar with Achilles playing limits, with Achilles knowing something better than they know themselves, pushing them just to breaking point then pulling back.) Patroclus tries to keep up at an easier pace, the unruly gray criollo given to him snorting in annoyance at his inexperienced rider.
Achilles stops them at a stream, out of breath and smiling wide, and swings off his panting horse. Patroclus dismounts and leads the criollo to water by the reigns.
“Why did you bring me here?” He speaks the words to the forest, the creek’s peaceful roll burbling against his boots. The pines cast a dappled light across every surface; Patroclus raises his hand, moves his arm to watch the way the shadows bend. He wouldn’t mind dying here, even if it was painful. He turns to look at Achilles, lets his hand drop to his side.
Achilles blinks at him, once, slowly, as if he’s confused. Not an expression Patroclus ever expected he’d see, it doesn’t sit well with his features. For a moment, there’s silence. Just the creek, the quiet breath of the pines, the frantic shuttering of the thoroughbred. “Why do you look so scared? Oh,” Achilles smiles and the silence is broken, Patroclus tries not to visibly flinch at the sudden change. “Oh you thought I bothered to bring you all the way out here to kill you?”
Patroclus sets his jaw, turns back to look over the creek, his hands curled into fists at his side.
He feels breath, hot and warm, at the nape of his neck. Patroclus’s heart stops. “You said it yourself, I need you too much for that.”
Three breaths, Patroclus fixes his gaze at the bend in the creek, the grass moths that flutter around patches of moss, the patterns the trees cast on the ground. “He got his name after wiping out half his competitors in the opium trade.” Patroclus thinks Achilles might be smiling, he draw back, stays icily still behind him. Inhuman. The breath at the back of his neck remains hushed, constant. “My father kept what he had by ruling with fear, no bond he made was free of some sort of threat, the looming desire to inflict pain or bankruptcy or, the worst of all, for most, complete erasure.”
And so he lists everything he knows about his father’s system. How to instill fear to the masses, pander to men with deep pockets, and control an entire city without even having to be seen. How to remain just a whispered threat, an unknown villain to scare the kiddies into bed at night. (Unspoken: how to treat people like weapons, how to destroy the family that is supposed to love you. How to disfigure bond between father and son, mother and son. How to burn and be burned in turn.) Achilles has already figured out the main points on his own, but it doesn’t hurt as much as Patroclus is expecting it to to rehash the obvious.
Most importantly: always know your endgame. Always keep it in sight. Do not get greedy with your own life. Know that the fall will come, the power is in the ability to maintain control.
It is silent, then Achilles has his hand on Patroclus’s shoulder, then Achilles withdraws with a murmured, “Good soldier.”
It’s April twenty-first and Patroclus hasn’t been back to the old woman’s flat since the third. Achilles doesn’t even bother lying about the trains, just expertly changes the subject every time Patroclus tries to raise the question as to when he can go home. The other men still don’t look at him and he’s pretty sure Deidameia planted a dead rat under his pillow a few nights ago, but someone brought some of his clothes from his rented room, and every morning Peleus asks him about what books he’s been reading. And sometimes he catches Achilles looking at him in a way that doesn’t hint at distain or malice. Sometimes he catches Achilles just looking, sometimes he catches the light glinting off his skin, paint dried to his arms after he disappears into the studio for hours on end.
Or like now, where the moonlight hits the cataclysm of his cheekbones, shadows morphing into the worried dip of his eyelashes as he peers into the trunk of Patroclus’s car. He stares at its contents quizzically, as if this were a puzzle the two of them needed to solve. It was this uneasy solace that has developed between the two of them, the emperor and his quiet advisor.
“This is going to be quite the mess, isn’t it?”
Patroclus tilts his head, as if examining the problem from a new angle would give him better insight. “Should I break the arms or the legs?” The body is too tall for the trunk, no matter how Patroclus positions then repositions its head, the limbs, nothing works. It stares up at them, eyes unfocused, jaw lax at their absurd problem. The stiffness will settle in eventually, for now the body remains pliant. “The newspapers aren’t enough, we can’t cut it up.”
Achilles tilts his head to the same angle, sighs through his nose. “Start with the elbows.” He walks to the front of the car, climbs in, leaves Patroclus to do the dirty work, as per usual. The driveway’s gravel crunches underfoot, somewhere in the house behind them, Peleus is entertaining dinner guests, telling a story grand enough to distract from the fact that there’s two empty seats, one missing visitant. Risky, to plan this out in his own home. Patroclus hopes Achilles already has his scapegoat, already paid off the people willing to turn a blind eye.
It’s work, but he manages to slam the trunk closed after some creative positioning and a broken fibula or two. Patroclus slides into the driver’s seat, slightly out of breath, presses his key into the ignition. “The railroad, you said? That bit that goes through the wheat field?”
Achilles nods from where he sits, his chin propped in his hand, gazing out the window over the estate’s hills, a petulant Grecian statue, all marble and paper-thin eyelids. Patroclus leans forward and flips on the radio, promptly skipping any reports from the western front and settling on the soft crooning of Billie Holiday. He wishes Achilles hadn’t been oddly quiet throughout the whole endeavor of getting the body from the house to the car, hadn’t insisted on watching Patroclus work instead of Andrew or Briseis. As if Patroclus is still completing his “interview”, as if Patroclus couldn’t be trusted with this one alone.
The countryside is a dark and sleeping beast outside the windows, Patroclus keeps the headlights off until they’ve cleared the Aeacus property. Once they’re heading down the main road, towards the tracks, Patroclus rolls down the window, taps out a tune on the steering wheel until he catches Achilles looking at him out of the corner of his eye.
“Are you working on anything as of late?” Patroclus doesn’t take his eyes off the road; it’s easier to make pleasant conversation this way. Achilles the struggling artist, God could I have really been fooled that easily? He doesn’t know if he’s simply gotten better at spotting Achilles’s conflicting personas or if Achilles just allows himself to slip up more around Patroclus. “The last piece I saw was that text-based one about the war.”
“Are you trying to invite yourself into my studio, Patroclus?” Pa-tro-clus. Achilles sounds like he’s distracted by something else, his response flat, no familiar sting at all.
“It’s a basic conversation skill, sir.” That gets his attention; Patroclus can feel the heavy heat of Achilles’s gaze on him almost immediately. He adjusts his grip on the steering wheel. “Ask the other person about something they’re interested in, ask them to elaborate.”
A drawn-out moment of silence. “I swear, sometimes it’s like you want me to punish you.” The statement should scare him more than it does. Patroclus shrugs, tells Achilles to hold on to something and takes a sharp turn to follow the railway, rocks spitting out from under the wheels and scraping against the sides of the car.
When they get out, Achilles lifts a shovel from the backseat and tosses it over the hood of the car for Patroclus to catch. The cars headlights flood into the wheat field before them, each front facing blade harshly illuminated, others cast in shadow, creating a staccato image of black and gold before them. Patroclus points to a portion of hard earth with the spade. “Here?” He turns to see Achilles’s confirmation, has to shield his eyes against the light.
“Keep it shallow, I want them to be found.” He’s only a silhouette, a still black figure leaning against the car. Patroclus nods, throws the shovel down where Achilles wants the grave, and steps out of the light to get the body from the trunk. It’s heavier without Achilles’s help, darkly comedic in the way its broken limbs collapse and fold as Patroclus drags it across the ground.
Christ, he needs to go home soon. He needs to reacquaint himself with how real people act. Maybe that girl will bring him tea again, if he looks especially miserable. Was New Years really that long ago?
“You can cut the lights,” Patroclus drops the body, squints against the lights as he bends down to pick up the shovel. The only confirmation he gets is sudden darkness, he has to blink a few times before he can see more than just the moon, the stars.
When he is done, he takes it by its elbows and drags it forward, letting it fold in a pile of broken legs and arms, its head rolling to the side and an unnatural angle. An unceremonious grave, but they’re getting a burial nonetheless. Soon they’ll be nothing but dirt, nothing but the wind that sweeps over the field of wheat, forcing the stalks to move in one continuous wave. Or maybe Patroclus thinks this just to make himself feel better.
He doesn’t realize Achilles is standing next to him until he pries the shovel from Patroclus’s clenched fingers and begins filling in the rest of the grave. He’s removed his dinner jacket, pushed the sleeves of his dress shirt to his elbows, his state of dress echoing the same messy disarray Patroclus always finds him in. He only stops shoveling dirt when he feels as though it’s been made obvious enough that there’s a body collapsed in that little space, a person with memories and family that apparently didn’t even deserve a proper burial, a proper death.
“He used to be a friend of mine,” Achilles states finally, slightly out of breath, voice too quiet for Patroclus not to feel some sort of concern. “Deiphobus. A good man, kind.”
Patroclus looks at Achilles. “Why did you do it?”
He thinks for a long time before he answers, his hair almost white in this light. He looks younger, more conflicted, less controlled than Patroclus has ever seen him. (He thinks, maybe, this is where the artist comes from: Those brilliant anxious unsure explosions of red and green and white, those screaming canvases. Patroclus has never really seen him before until now.) “Doesn’t that make me a god? Being able to?” Achilles looks down at the small grave, leaning casually against the shovel, voice too quiet. Not someone who just buried a man. His eyes are cast in shadow, his outline just silver lines of light. The moon is full; Patroclus doesn’t think he could stop looking at Achilles if he tried. “Possessing the ability to take away life, doesn’t that make us individual gods?” He turns his head to look directly at Patroclus. It’s too dark to tell but Patroclus thinks maybe he blinks slowly, twice, as if trying to make sense of something, maybe the look on Patroclus’s face.
The wheat murmurs something to the wind; Patroclus takes the shovel from Achilles’s hand, then takes Achilles’s hand.
He stiffens, as if unsure what to do with this, this meeting of skin. It takes to Patroclus’s count of ten for Achilles’s fingers to intertwine with Patroclus’s own, almost twenty more counts before his head golden head rests against Patroclus’s tired shoulder.
Achilles disappears as soon as Patroclus stops the car outside of his studio, the door slamming shut just as Patroclus catches sight of the fat dog greeting Achilles at the entrance. He sighs, steers the car back towards the house. It’s easier not to think about what he was stupid enough to just do, so he doesn’t. Instead, he parks the car, dumps the shovel in the toolshed, cleans the trunk, burns the newspapers that bore the weight of Deiphobus’s body and scatters the ashes in the garden. (He doesn’t want to even begin to comprehend what kind of disposed evidence fertilizes the rose bush that envelops half the back porch with its thorny maw.)
It’s only when he’s pulled the covers over his shoulders, hair still slightly wet from his shower, that he allows himself to go over the day’s events. He’d run an errand for Peleus, walked him around the property to see the birds in the morning, helped set up for the dinner party with the rest of the staff. Snapped someone’s neck as they were taking a piss, stuffed their broken body into the back of his truck, tried to start a pleasant conversation with Achilles. Held Achilles’s hand in some stupid moment of he doesn’t even know what.
The length of his right arm still burns from where Achilles had leaned into him. Patroclus flips the pillow over and tries to sleep, the open window playing a cool breeze across his face. He doesn’t remember his dream, but when he opens his eyes (minutes or hours later, it’s impossible to tell), the door is open again. The rectangular swath of light crossing the floor surrounds a shadow of a tall figure, leaning against the doorframe, the same casual position of that first night he’d spent in this room. Patroclus studies the shadow a few moments before reaching across the bed and turning down the side of the quilt. He rolls back over on his side, tries to control his breathing, his pounding heart.
The door closes.
The bed dips.
Achilles (hardened with lean muscle but gentle, slow, hesitant as a doe stepping onto the road) slides under the covers, throwing a leg over one of Patroclus’s hips, bare chest pressing against Patroclus’s back. Achilles presses his face into the back of his neck, his breathing soft, the calloused palm he presses to Patroclus’s navel more confident than the cautious way his lips barely brush top of his spine. A careful equilibrium, Patroclus rests his hand over the one Achilles has over his stomach.
And for now, it’s enough. It’s enough.
Achilles retreats in the early hours before morning, Patroclus opens his eyes when the warm presence slides away from him, the sudden loss of a second pulse pressed against his back enough to pull him into wakefulness. He only turns around when he hears the door being eased shut, grabs the pillow Achilles had rested his head against, pulls it into the curve of his body. He smells like the ocean, the salt that gathered across Patroclus’s skin as he fired the gun to impress the other boys, the water that passed through his fingers like silk. Patroclus allows himself this small thing, this brief respite.
He leaves before breakfast; walking along the road to the station with the book Peleus had given him to read. By the time he returns to London it’s already noon and the skies are clear. The weather is fair enough for people to be milling around on the streets, enjoying the relief of warmth while it lasts. Patroclus reads his book on the stone steps of the church, glances up to watch the groups of people pass, check on the old couple leaning into one another on the bench. Two nurses hurriedly walk down the street, whispering quietly to themselves, pressed so close together Patroclus has a hard time distinguishing whose hands flutter up to give him a small wave as they pass.
(The way one presses into the other, urgently trying to garner her attention, reminds Patroclus of the way Achilles’s hold instantly tightened whenever Patroclus tried to shift in his sleep. The insistent way Patroclus molded his body to fit Achilles’s own. One of the girls drops her hand, linking just their pinkies in the slightest breath of intimacy. Patroclus knows what that’s like, never wanting to be released, to feel that retreat like fire in the lungs. The girls disappear down the street; Patroclus turns to the next page of his book.)
He enters the flat with a loaf of bread and the month’s rent, setting both gently on the table, quietly making his hike up the stairs. The old woman doesn’t glance up from her sewing, the hum of her radio loud enough to provide a steady rhythm to Patroclus neatening the room in the same untouched disarray he’d left it in.
In the steady quiet, Patroclus finds that he’s forgetting what he did to pass the time before Achilles. He’s forgotten who it was that read newspaper reviews for shoddy gallery openings and hid from a life he would have given a part of himself away to disinherit. This, weak as it sounds, scares him. Patroclus wanders the street until dark, only coming back to help the woman cook dinner.
Patroclus doesn’t go back to the estate for two days, he has a hard time finding something to do with himself.
The third day, he buys a car and takes it to a children’s shelter in Hindhead. He helps the nuns taking care of the children left orphans by the war, drives in their rations, helps prepare lunch, reads to a small group of boys whose lessons were canceled for the day. At the end of the day, as he’s shrugging on his jacket, a nun places a gentle hand at his elbow and quietly inquires if he’d like to start teaching the children literature. Patroclus is forced to hesitate, consider the choices he could have made in this life that would give him the opportunity to agree to this offer. He smiles politely but declines, promises he’ll come back the next day.
As he’s walking home, he considers using the rest of the money in his wallet to hire a girl. It feels like a betrayal just to think about it, though Patroclus doesn’t know why. (Back of his head: he’s really got you fucked up.) His bed feels cold when he crawls back into it.
On the fourth day, Briseis is waiting for him when he parks his car in front of the shelter, arms crossed, head cocked, eyes narrowed. She doesn’t say anything at first, until Patroclus starts the walk over to her and she hugs him so hard he’s knocked backwards a bit. Patroclus stumbles, resists a smile, hugs her back.
Briseis withdraws, prods Patroclus’s chest with a ringed finger. “Patroclus Actor, you must give some damn good head if you’ve gotten Achilles this tightly wound.” Heat rises to his face and it’s all he can do to manage a strangled laugh. She turns heel, begins walking towards the shelter and it’s all Patroclus can do to try and keep up. “I’ve been dodging German bullets for three months and that was easier to keep up with than whatever fit Achilles was throwing when I walked through the doors yesterday.”
He’s the one that left first. Is what Patroclus wants to say, confused as to how this was going to be their topic of conversation as they entered an orphanage. He’s the one that left first and nothing even happened. Patroclus keeps his mouth shut, notices the peculiar way all the nuns avert their eyes to the floor as soon as Briseis enters the room. The woman a solid foot shorter than Patroclus has already taken control of the entire institute just by being present. They don’t look at Patroclus the same way they did yesterday, something tells him they never will.
Briseis continues to go on complaining about Achilles, assigning herself jobs to complete, driven to a level of bustling anger he’s never seen before. Patroclus just stands back and does as he’s told, quietly listens, trying to process exactly what this now means.
At the end of the day, Briseis pecks his cheek and orders him to come back to the estate or Achilles “will be the least of your worries”. Patroclus smiles, nods, gives a small wave before she disappears into the car that’s pulled up for her. He turns and climbs into his own car, takes the long route home and listens to the news on the radio, quietly enters the flat long after dinner had grown cold and the old woman had retreated to bed. Patroclus takes his shoes off at the door and retreats upstairs, stands under the spray of the shower and tries to do anything but think about what Briseis had told him.
He wraps a towel around his waist and pads down the hall, flipping off the lights before he pushes the door open and stops.
There’s a person in his bed.
Back turned to Patroclus, the elegant expanse of their spine disappears under the sheets gathered at their waist. At the sound of the door opening, the body shifts onto its stomach, the head of golden hair turning to look at Patroclus.
Achilles’s eyes practically glimmer in the only light coming from the streetlamp outside, his body cut into slivers by the drawn curtains. Patroclus stays where he is, one hand on the doorknob, the other holding the towel around his hips. Achilles’s slow drawl takes all the air in the entire room. “Easy, soldier.”
“I thought I mentioned something about this being a private space.”
“You said that my men have to keep out of the flat,” Achilles rolls completely onto his side to face Patroclus, resting his head at the crook of his arm, the covers pulling down to tease a hip, a thin stretch of thigh. (He looks like something out of a skin mag and Patroclus does everything in his power to try and ignore this.) “You never mentioned anything about me.”
Patroclus closes the door. (Moth, flame.) Swallows, drops his towel. (Rabbit, snare.) Achilles’s eyes are fire and ice, delivering a slow, languid look that has Patroclus’s heart in his throat. Patroclus sits at the edge of the bed, ghosts his fingers over the curve of Achilles’s cheek, the strands of his falling over his face. The darkness is gifted light with the slight way Achilles shifts into his touch, gingerly pressing into Patroclus, ready, wanting. Patroclus withdrawals his hand
“Well?” Achilles says and it’s all bite, his shoulders tense with something Patroclus cannot place. “If you’re going to do something then—”
And Patroclus kisses him, softly, the barest touch of his lips on skin, where the corners of Achilles’s eyes wrinkle when he grins. It shocks the man beneath him into silence; Patroclus can feel the hitch of breath from where he’s placed a hand on Achilles’s chest, easing Achilles onto his back. It’s only breathing between them until Patroclus leans down and does it again, this time at the curve of his cheekbone, then the corner of his jaw, his lips.
When Patroclus was young, too young to fully remember, the ocean drugged his tenuous body into its wild swath of blue. Achilles kisses Patroclus with this same intensity, this wild yearning, this clashing of teeth, this scraping of nails, pulling of hair, all a strong current, a god-defying force of nature forcing water into his lungs. He draws one leg up and bucks against Patroclus while biting down at the side of his neck, Patroclus thinks he may have drawn blood but its all he can do to keep himself upright, caging Achilles in with one palm cupping his neck, his other forearm supporting his weight over Achilles’s writhing body.
The air tastes sweet when they both draw back, panting. Achilles’s eyes are wild, burning with something that almost looks like fear—Patroclus recoils immediately, ripping his hand away from Achilles’s neck, sitting back and breathing hard. (He can’t help but think about the boy, the one who was keening under him but wept with his entire body afterwards, accused Patroclus of impiety, condemned himself to hellfire. He wasn’t going to have that happen again, that mistake of the body. He doesn’t think he could bare Achilles regretting whatever this was going to turn into. He knows he couldn’t bare it.) He thinks Achilles might actually murder him, but he’s saying the words before he can think them through. “Have you ever done this before?”
Achilles goes ridged and Patroclus can practically hear the walls slamming down as Achilles trains his expression into one of mild indifference. (That look of nervousness still there, though, in the slight way he inches away from Patroclus, recoiling, as if wounded. It’s as much of a confirmation as Patroclus needs.) “You know, I thought you would let this be simple if it were me to come to you.”
“The second you thought crawling into my bed naked was a good idea you made this more complicated than it ever needed to be.” Patroclus blows a breath of air through puffed cheeks. “I…” he huffs another breath, trying come up with the right words. “I want to do this. With you. Very badly. But if you don’t think you can or just want to—”
Achilles’s eyes search Patroclus’s own. Ice, fire, the apex of them both. His words are meant to burn, cruel and defensive. “You’re too kind, that’s what makes you weak.”
Outside, a pair of drunks howl a folk song until an unhappy resident yells for silence from an apartment window, a car passes. Patroclus remains, undeterred, pulse beginning to settle. “If you’re trying to prompt me to anger, it’s not going to be that easy.” Haven’t I done enough for you? Is what he wants to say. Haven’t I given enough to earn your trust? Don’t I deserve your honesty? Those words would only complicate things further; Achilles is too much of a caged animal to risk saying something like that.
Patroclus sits back, crosses his legs, leans forward, and waits. Achilles looks beautiful like this, the sheets gathered around his waist, the bones of his shoulders casting sharp shadows in the wine-dark gloom, the fluttering of his breath, the oppressive weight of the silence between them.
Achilles speaks slowly, for once refuses to look Patroclus in the eye. He studies his fingers, wraps them in and around the fabric beneath them, speaking to his hands. “I hated you. I am not… I was not raised to give up control to other people.”
“You tried to kill me because you felt like I would try to control you?”
“Will you shut up and listen to what I’m trying to say?” Achilles stiffens as soon as the words are out of his mouth, he balls the sheets into his fists, has the decency to look abashed. “Sorry I… I didn’t mean it like that I…” He grits his teeth for a moment, frustrated he can’t manage to put whatever it is into words. Achilles draws into himself, hugging his knees to his chest like a child trying to comfort himself. “I thought I hated you because you made me want to be able to give up control. I saw that as weakness in myself and I wanted you gone because of it. If you were dead or on the other side of the country or just… not here, I could pretend that part of me didn’t exist. I could pretend that weakness wasn’t there.”
The sacrifices we make for power. His father did it with words and punishment, wove lies and mistrust between Patroclus and his mother, built himself into a figure of fear and fire. But his father does not have the same brightness as Achilles, does not look at the world in its brave new glory, does not carry the same want, the same heavy will. Patroclus speaks softly. “What was it that changed your mind?”
Achilles finally looks at him, really looks, and it’s the waves that burnished Patroclus’s body with their salt, with their urgency to crumble and collapse. He presses his lips together and there is nothing of the man that ordered him to murder a child, nothing of the Achilles that wants to watch the world fall around him. Patroclus almost forgot that he (golden and beautiful and so painfully real) is still young, barely considered an adult, youth and innocence and fear so plainly playing across his face. “Can you kiss me, again? Like you did before, like…”
Patroclus leans forward, uses the knuckle of his forefinger to tilt Achilles’s chin upwards. It’s sweet, a softness behind it that neither of them deserve, the sliding of bodies as Patroclus maneuvers Achilles onto his back, this tide pulling everything into its gaping jaws, this fire in the gut. (Not urgent now, more of a steady pull, a fixed burn of embers.) Patroclus wraps a hand around Achilles’s bent knee, drawing him closer still. Achilles eases into touch, pliant, giving a breathy moan as Patroclus wraps a gentle hand around his cock. The sheets are kicked off the bed as Patroclus rubs his thumb over Achilles’s slit, bowing his head to kiss his neck, his chest.
(Achilles says Patroclus’s name in prayer and it might be the closest Patroclus has ever come to understanding how men will devour everything for power because Patroclus would tear this world to the ground for Achilles to say his name like that again.)
Patroclus removes his hand with a soft sound of distress from Achilles, stretching to fish through his nightstand for a few seconds before his withdraws with a small bottle in hand. Achilles breathes a laugh, lips flush, his want stiff and flush to his stomach.
“Suppose you’re going to have to guide me through this?”
Patroclus thinks Achilles may have just gifted him the world without even knowing it. He’s grinning, leaning down to press a swift kiss to Achilles’s forehead before working the oil onto his fingers, his own length. Achilles lifts his hips for Patroclus to position a pillow at the small of his back before he’s back to marking every bit of his skin, nipping a bruise onto Achilles’s jutting hipbone. Patroclus works a single finger into his entrance, slowly, feeling Achilles jerk then go still under his gentle ministrations. After a moment’s wait, he moves his hips slightly upwards, granting Patroclus permission to continue.
When Patroclus finally slides into Achilles, its every breath sung between them, every ashen breeze and tidal pull. Achilles comes breathing Patroclus’s name and he thinks this must be what it feels like, this is the independent god Achilles told him of all those nights ago.
This, Patroclus thinks as he finishes inside the man that holds him as fire cradles chitin, as a dog coddles a rabbit in its loyal mouth, this is how it’s supposed to be. This feels right.
The morning comes with a thick fog trotting through London on heavy feet. At some point during one of them had pulled the quilt pushed to the end of the bed and thrown it over their sweaty bodies, but by the time Patroclus opens his eyes they’re in too much of a tangle of limbs to tell who it was that rose first. He shifts slightly and it’s enough to wake Achilles, the warm heat of him turning to accommodate the length of Patroclus’s body.
“You stayed,” Patroclus mumbles sleepily, immediately going to bury his head into the curve of Achilles’s neck, pressing a gentle kiss against the bruise he’d left there the night before. Achilles doesn’t fully answer him, just makes a sound low in his throat and pulls a hand over Patroclus’s scalp.
“Y’know what my lieutenant said to me once?” Patroclus likes the way Achilles breathes underneath him, likes the way his voice reverberates when they’re wrapped up in each other, a small quiet sound for just the two of them. He wishes they could stay here for the rest of their lives, he wishes Achilles would brand him with his holy mouth, with bruises on his neck, clawed marks on his back, his ribs.
“We were ambushed, a mine had gone off that just obliterated two of our men,” Patroclus drags his finger over Achilles’s navel, admires how the muscles twitch under the lightest touch. “And he grabs me by my shoulders and goes ‘we’re sacks of meat, all of us’,” he does his best American accent. He has to press his lips together, to keep from laughing. “‘Sacks of meat’, Christ, what’s happening on American programming that makes them all so melodramatic?”
He looks up at him and they both start laughing so hard Patroclus has to roll away from Achilles and onto his back. He covers his face with his hands until Achilles pulls at his wrists again, starts kissing him again and Patroclus is laughing into his mouth again and again and smiling and Lord, he would give anything to have this for the rest of his life. Until the end of his days.
“Patroclus,” Achilles bites another dark mark along Patroclus’s jawline. “You’re my favorite meat sack.”
They doze, drifting in and out of wakefulness, a small cocoon of the most basic comforts—a hand over his heart, the bright weight of Achilles’s arm around his waist, the way in which he marks Patroclus, claiming ownership with a small nip of the teeth, the languid drag of nails over his back.
London rolls its tired shoulders and stretches into awareness outside, the gradual trickle of people going to work in the factories feeding the war machine, the ever distant plod of progress, of cars in the streets, the morning’s paper being advertised by the shrill voices of children.
Patroclus would be up and out the door by now, but Achilles doesn’t make a move suggesting they should rise until Patroclus’s stomach grumbles hungrily.
They eat a small but expensive breakfast of coffee and a shared pastry at the café three blocks away from Achilles’s former gallery. Patroclus strategically places his knee so they can hold hands under the table, realizes how hard it is now not to look at Achilles as if he’s the sun—at one point Patroclus is in the middle of explaining the plot of the book he’s reading and Achilles absent mindedly runs his thumb over Patroclus’s knuckles and it takes all the breath from his lungs. They fuck in the bathroom, it’s small and cramped and Patroclus finds it so ridiculous at one point he starts laughing and Achilles kisses him to shut him up and he thinks it’s the happiest he’s been in a while. (The happiest he’s been for a very long time, he thinks.)
Patroclus drives them back to the estate, has to make a physical effort to retreat back into that blank-faced bodyguard façade. Achilles steps out of the car and it’s almost chilling how different he looks from the man he’d woken up beside. He slams the door shut, Patroclus silently follows behind, shoulders stiff, hands clasped loosely behind his back. The staff shies away from the pair of them, averts their eyes. Peleus doesn’t need to call for his son, Achilles goes straight to his office as soon as they climb the first set of stairs.
A maid grabs Patroclus by the arm, wheels him around and back out the staff entrance. Andrew is smoking a cigarette, leaning against Patroclus’s car. He gives Patroclus a quick nod as the maid disappears, stubs the cigarette out on the sole of his shoe. Andrew has a new scar on his temple, a broken nose and matching black eyes. Patroclus sighs, squares his shoulders.
Back to work it is, then.
Days turn to weeks turn to months turn to years. Patroclus doesn’t even notice the four-year anniversary of joining the Aeacus’s service has well since passed (as well as his and Achilles’s birthday) until the paper declares the end of the war. He’s in Algeria when it happens, only gives himself a second to feel like he’s been punched in the gut, to wish to be held by a certain golden-haired man with green eyes and a lion’s smile. Then he snaps himself back to reality, throws the paper to the ground, goes back to following whatever target was given to him in a thick manila folder that morning.
Sometimes he’s thrown into missions head first and doesn’t come back to the house for weeks on end, sometimes Achilles doesn’t order him to do more than just sit by his side and nod whenever an idea is thrown his way. When he comes back, it’s just like that. Achilles doesn’t mention anything about the war being over, Patroclus visits the children’s shelter a few more times before one of the nuns tells him his services are no longer needed. He finishes four books on the little couch positioned to look out over the windows of the studio, murmurs unheard advice whenever Achilles’s frantic pacing gets to be too much of a bother for him to keep ignoring it.
On a Saturday night in the middle of October, they go out for drinks.
Achilles buttons Patroclus’s shirt until the collar wraps neatly around his neck, concealing the purple welts he’d left that morning and the bite mark on Patroclus’s shoulder. Patroclus leans down, tries to catch Achilles’s mouth as he dresses him like a little girl might dress her doll, roughly jerking on item after item, delicately smoothing it down once it was in place. Achilles dances away from him, granting only the barest peck on the cheek, scowling and muttering something about Patroclus trying to wrinkle his shirt, then complaining about the stubble on Patroclus’s cheeks.
“What, you don’t like it?” Patroclus rubs his jaw, tries to lean down to take Achilles’s mouth, again. His efforts are met with a slap to the chest, a little too forceful to be taken as playful.
“If I had known I’d be taking a barbarian to a business meeting, I’d have chosen a different date,” Achilles huffs, tugging Patroclus’s belt through the loops of his trousers. “Quit moving, I’m trying—”
“I didn’t realize we’re going to be joined by someone.” Leave it to an Aeacus to turn a night out into a conference; Patroclus tries to hide his mild disappointment in grabbing at Achilles’s hips as he tries to search for a tie in the wide expanse of his closet. Achilles lets himself be drawn into Patroclus’s chest, goes limp under the hand that slides into his pants.
“Patroclus—” his breath shutters out of him in one heady word. “Fine—fine. Don’t,” another breathy moan, “don’t leave any marks.”
Patroclus goes to his knees with a wry grin. “I’ll do my best.”
The restaurant hums with the sweet voice of Adelaide Hall, the velvet curtains dividing each table from the next, quieting any conversation to an incoherent mumble, smoke drifting low and thick in the air. Patroclus steps in beside Achilles just as the singer croons about a lost love. Her voice rolls smoothly over the cherry-stained oak floors, just as deep an amber as the liquor artfully arranged on the wall behind the bartender. A waiter guides them to the nearest table, brushing against an obnoxiously large planter of palm fronts and opening the dividing curtain with a flourish, a smile shot at Patroclus.
“If you’re actively trying to give me a heart attack with the security of this place, it’s working.” Patroclus grumbles under his breath as they sit. Achilles pats his knee under the table, orders a drink and waves the waiter away, immediately burying his nose in the menu.
The curtain shifts and a broad-shouldered man ducks into their booth. Patroclus’s gun is in his hand, the barrel already pressing against the thigh of the newcomer. He pauses, gives Patroclus a long once-over before turning his gaze to Achilles, eyebrow cocked in a silent and? Achilles crushes Patroclus’s toes with the heel of his shoe, greeting their guest with a nod. Patroclus holsters his weapon.
“Odysseus, Diomedes.” A second man, taller than the first with a beard cropped neatly to his face, slides in behind his companion, seating himself beside Patroclus without so much as a look his way. Patroclus blinks, slightly off put by the difference between the three—all men sit the same, shoulders drawn back easily, giving an air of confidence that oddly contrasts with the stiffness of their spines, the obvious threat of distrust hanging heavy in the air. Both Odysseus and Diomedes are nothing to Achilles’s perfectly polished demeanor; yet they all somehow take up the same space, swallow the entire room with their presence. Achilles keeps his foot over Patroclus’s, Patroclus doesn’t know what this means.
Diomedes is the first to speak. (He wears denim and work boots splattered with mud, openly sneers at all the velvet, the polished nature of the restaurant, smells like cigarettes and metal.) “I know you got too much of a stick up your own ass to meet us where we originally planned, but is this really all necessary?”
“Hush,” Odysseus speaks with the air of a finely tuned aristocrat, throws Patroclus a sharp-toothed grin with the air of a conman. “Whatever the little prince wants, that was clear.” His eyes flick to Patroclus. “I didn’t realize you brought the exile with you.”
Achilles waves a hand. “Unimportant.”
“Agamemnon is not pleased,” Diomedes states plainly, not bothering with pleasantries. “You’re working against our original strategy and the Trojans are angry. Hector especially.”
Achilles shrugs, the pads of his fingers playing with the edge of the knife neatly placed atop the napkin in front of him. Nervous energy—though Patroclus only knows this from four years spent together. “What have I ever done to him?”
Diomedes begins listing just exactly what Achilles has done on his fingers. “Directly infringed upon truces your father put in place to prevent a mess like this from happening, stole all his major suppliers and half of his workforce. Oh, Odysseus, what was that last one?”
“Killed his brother,” Odysseus offers, rather cheerfully, still studying Patroclus with curious eyes. “Think that might be a big one. He’s still a bit perturbed about that.”
Patroclus realizes, albeit a bit too late, that there is a war going on and he’s only been the little errand boy this entire time.
(At the back of his mind: God, how foolish have you been.)
(At the back of his mind: After all, aren’t you just a soldier to Achilles? Aren’t you just another animal to tame? Do you really have the privilege to know what’s really going on behind all this?)
The name Agamemnon is familiar—Agamemnon and Menelaus, brothers, orchestrators, the real bosses throughout this entire thing. Their names usually found their way into Menoitius’s mouth, usually with scorn, usually when he was so drunk he couldn’t peel himself off the kitchen floor. Though Patroclus has never heard of the Trojans—he’s been out of the game longer than he thought. He keeps quiet, keeps the same even look until Odysseus looks away to study Achilles.
“The boss barely holds any power over us as it is,” Achilles narrows his eyes in challenge; neither of the men correct him. “The Trojans took his brother’s wife, I don’t understand how he couldn’t want—”
“It doesn’t matter what you think he should want,” Diomedes snaps. Jo Stafford replaces Adelaide Hall with only the crackle of the gramophone to signal the change of voice. “You’re actively tearing apart plans that have taken years to put into place for your own personal gain. This is not just about you, now. You’ve made sure of that.”
“I refuse to dishonor my father’s name,” Achilles narrows his eyes leans forward to directly intimidate Diomedes. “Tell Agamemnon I refuse to fight his bloody war for him until he can comply with my demands. They’ve been made clear enough, I shouldn’t have to restate them.”
Diomedes laughs and it’s a cruel sound, just a bark of noise through bared teeth. “You mean you’ll keep throwing this tantrum of yours until you’ve sufficiently fueled your precious ego?” He leans across the table, supporting his weight on one forearm, forcing his words out through gritted teeth. “Your actions will have consequences, Aeacus. Mark my fucking words.”
Stafford carols on, the curtains part and the waiter that kept throwing heavy-lidded looks at Patroclus neatly places a wine glass in front of each patron, setting the bottle at the center of the table.
“Well,” Odysseus smiles pleasantly at Patroclus as Achilles and Diomedes stare each other down, fills his glass near full. “Pleasant timing, don’t you think?”
They stay long after Odysseus and Diomedes depart. As soon as the curtains swing shut Achilles moves on to hard liquor and Patroclus is trapped in a velvet-enclosed booth with a brooding lion who snarls at Patroclus every time he tries to pry the whiskey glass from his clawed grasp. Patroclus nurses his glass of wine, propping his chin on his hand and entertaining himself by trying to catch the lyrics of whatever song the bartender puts on. Sometimes Achilles grumbles to himself, or rubs his hand over his face in frustration. He wishes he brought a book.
Patroclus helps Achilles wrestle himself to his feet when the restaurant closes, his head drooping forward, all his fragile weight draping across Patroclus’s body. (His weightlessness forces Patroclus to try and remember the last time he’d seen Achilles eat more than just a slice of bread and a bottle of liquor. He can’t seem to recall. Under his palms, Achilles’s ribs flutter like the wings of a captured bird, each length of bone and sinew sharply defined beneath Patroclus’s fingers.) The door is opened for the both of them with a patient look from the bartender, the dull warmth of the restaurant traded for the brisk autumn night.
The rain falls lightly around them, a soft patter, the streetlamp’s light scattering across the ground in broken mirrors of light. They’re three stumbling steps into the alleyway before Achilles rips himself from Patroclus’s grip, collapses in a pile of limbs and golden hair. His spine arches as he empties his stomach, his entire body quivering with the force at which it takes him to force the liquor back up. It’s nothing but water and bile. Patroclus finds himself hesitating before he kneels beside Achilles and smooths a hand over his back, murmuring soft words of encouragement as he tries to ease Achilles back to his feet. He weakly refuses, lurching to his feet only to fall again, seated with his back against the alley’s wall, half his weight supported against the dumpster. Patroclus sighs, straightens, and attempts to resume his efforts.
“The waiter wants ‘t fuck you,” Achilles’s incoherent mumblings come hot and angry across Patroclus’s neck. He spits onto the ground, narrowly missing Patroclus’s shoe, flashes Patroclus a grin that doesn’t meet his eyes. “So do the maids. And Andrew. And Briseis. And the waiter.”
“You already said the waiter wants to fuck me.” Patroclus tries to place Achilles’s arm over his shoulders, the other man barks out a cruel laugh, refuses Patroclus with a weak kick to the shin, his head lolling back to hit the brick wall of the alleyway. If Achilles wasn’t already making such a fool of himself Patroclus might call the look on his face similar to that of a half-drowned puppy.
“So?” Achilles slurs, limply trying to swat Patroclus away, making it more of an annoyance to try and drag him to his feet than achieving any means of warding Patroclus off.
“Eliminating redundancies increases the persuasive nature of an argument,” Patroclus deadpans, managing to swing one of his arms around his shoulder before Achilles goes pliant to his rough positioning. “Goddammit can you stop—”
“’s wasn’ an argument. Statement.”
“I don’t even know what you’re trying to tell me—”
“I said, the waiter wants ‘t fuck you,” Achilles’s eyes are so heavily lidded Patroclus can barely tell if he can see or not. Wouldn’t really make much of a difference. “A statement. Fact. Not tryin’a start anythin.”
This is pointless. The car was in sight, Patroclus could take him to his flat, no point in making the trip back to the estate this late with Achilles this sick. He doesn’t have to begin thinking about answering the landlord’s questions in the morning. “Let’s get you in bed, you can sleep this off and quit embarrassing yourself—”
“Oh Patroclus, so seductive,” he flutters his eyes, rolls his head backwards to lay his hot breath against Patroclus’s pulse. “Listen punk—”
Patroclus can’t help but roll his eyes. “Well if anyone’s the punk here—”
Achilles’s mood goes south faster than Patroclus can anticipate the fist that comes careening into his stomach. It’s enough to make Patroclus stumble, not enough for him to lose his grip on Achilles. He catches himself on the hood of his car, jostling Achilles in the process. “Fuck you. Fuck you—do you have any idea who I am?”
“That’s kind of why I’m still dealing with you, yes.” Patroclus snaps, shoves him into the passenger seat of the car. There’s no usual snarky remark or cruel laugh, no smile accompanied by flickering eyes of unkind intent. Achilles was silent. Achilles Aeacus was at a lost for words. Patroclus never thought he’d see the day. “Are you going to sulk like an overgrown child or are you going to listen to me for once in your life?” Patroclus leans on the open car door, Achilles gives his answer by crossing his arms and sinking low into the seat. Patroclus grits his teeth and looks to the sky, closes his eyes, gives a sharp exhale of frustration and a small prayer for patience before slamming the left side door. He walks around the front of the car, slides into the driver’s seat and fists the steering wheel, knuckles turning white with tension as he bites out the words. “There has only been you,” Patroclus sounds out, jamming the keys into the ignition, starting the car with a frustrated jerk of his wrist. I’m in love with a child. A giant, insolent, child that has more power than fucking Churchill himself. “It will only ever be you.”
He doesn’t realize he said those words, albeit only in his head, until Achilles is snoring softly and curled with his back to Patroclus.
The windows are open, the shades pulls up to let in the cold breeze coming in with the rain. No sirens or drunken singing, and the light from the streetlamp outside is more muted, but that same softness from their first night is still there, that same gentle excuse for contact. Achilles’s head rests on the bicep of Patroclus’s bent arm, the blankets pushed to his waist, his entire body tightening into a flinch in whatever dream he’s having before relaxing completely. Patroclus eases his arm out from under Achilles’s head and turns to his side, examines the way the rise and fall of Achilles’s breaths shift his shoulders. Patroclus traces the notches of his spine with his knuckles, pulling closer to kiss the nape of his neck. Achilles makes a soft sound in his sleep, turns and hides himself in the curve of Patroclus’s body. He draws the quilt up and around their shoulders to keep out the chill, bends into that simple touch.
Patroclus thinks maybe he means those words. He’d never speak them aloud, but he thinks he means them.
Two weeks pass, Achilles sends him on a wild goose chase around the coastline of North Africa—for a solid three days he doesn’t do more then catalogue a French ambassador’s movements in Morocco, takes pictures and writes down his daily routines. (Achilles never tells him why and Patroclus is just thankful there isn’t a cat involved.) He tries to ignore the fact that this is Achilles very obviously pushing Patroclus away as he fights the real war going on behind closed doors.
Briseis meets him for drinks and dancing one night, she smiles wide when she sees him and Patroclus realizes he thinks he may have just made a friend. Or whatever comes closest to that meaning in Achilles’s world. He tries to push what Achilles said out of his mind and enjoy himself, and he does. He really does. The night is warm and there are drinks and she laughs and jokes with him freely, they tell each other stories of their childhood, what they would be doing if it weren’t for the great sweeping wave of Aeacus. (Both answers very similar to “dead in a ditch somewhere, probably”.) Briseis kisses both his cheeks in parting, smiles wide and promises him in a gentle voice that there will be more nights like this, when “all this business” settles down.
When he returns to London two days later, he’s driven straight from the airport to Achilles’s studio. The dog (her name is Mary and she loves roast beef more than she loves him or Achilles) greets Patroclus with a small boof of acknowledgement before she settles to sun herself on the stones of the little garden Achilles had started last spring. (By “started” Patroclus more means Achilles sat in the shade drinking a gin and tonic and ordered Patroclus where to put which flowering fern.)
Everything holds the same homesick familiarity; the paint caked to the floor despite the tarps Achilles has scattered about, the low-slung couch Achilles had brought in after one to many complaints from Patroclus about how tarp feels against bare skin. The view from the furthest wall is just as breathtaking as he had left it when he’d departed a week ago, the wild grass flutters around the breeze, a flock of sparrows gather at the tree line and worry at the ground with their beaks.
Achilles, freshly showered, wearing one of Patroclus’s green sweaters pushed up to the elbows and a pair of trousers, doesn’t even move to turn as Patroclus eases the door shut. He looks upwards at a canvas twice the size as the both of them, all reds and blacks and the tiniest detail of a choking yellow. Patroclus puts down his suitcase, stands behind Achilles and wraps both arms around his waist, resting his chin against the curve of the other man’s shoulder to examine what he’s working on. No white boxes just yet—he must have started this one just this morning.
“Sent me all the way to Morocco for some surveillance jobs?”
“Just because you’re fucking me doesn’t mean you get any special treatment.” Despite the bite of his words, Achilles visibly relaxes into Patroclus’s hold. “In fact I think I might put you on clean up for the next few weeks—” Achilles’s words shake as Patroclus noses behind his ear and begins kissing his way down his neck. “—I heard the men talking, again. Don’t you think I should dispel any rumors of favoritism?”
“I had an idea, while I was up on that roof.” Patroclus untucks Achilles’s shirt with one hand instead of answering, runs the back of his knuckles up the zipper of his pants. “The common criminals you deal with, the ones you always complain about—”Achilles automatically stiffens; Patroclus nuzzles reassuringly into his neck. “Let me finish before you say anything. Don’t you think you could send one of us in place of you? They’re street scum, never been in the presence of a bougie their entire lives. They wouldn’t know the difference between Andrew and an Aeacus—it would save you the headache of trying to deal with them and focus on the more important things. You could save time…” We can be together. Is the final unspoken reason, his last hopeful bargaining piece. I can take you to that house on the beach and we can be together without the worry of anyone seeing us and starting rumors. We could be happy there, and I could build you a studio that looks out over the ocean. Every morning the sun dances across the water and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.
Achilles is still looking at his painting, his eyes flicking over the broiling mass of black at its very center, the animal sweeps of red slathered onto the canvas with the pallet knife he still grips loosely in one hand. “I do believe I’ve been lying to you for a very long time.”
“Years ago,” Achilles continues. “You told me the most important lesson you learned from your father’s infamy was the endgame, the ability to maintain enough control to govern the circumstance of your inevitable demise.” He tilts his head, voice is cold. He’s detached in the way he gets when he withdraws for days on end, drinks until he can barely speak a coherent sentence, venomously attacks everyone he’s close to. “For a while I thought that makes sense, short-lived glory. That’s why I let this happen between the two of us, when you killed Deiphobus and held me after. At the time, I thought I’d be dead and gone within a few months at the least. So that was part of what I wanted my endgame to be.” Patroclus doesn’t like where this is going, but he stays silent. “Might as well give in to that animal instinct of mine, right? If I’m to go out so soon, I wanted to at least be able to understand what all the fuss is about.” Achilles runs his tongue over his teeth. “But you were wrong.” He turns and looks at Patroclus now, their chests are almost touching and his eyes all fire, all a winter’s storm over screaming water. “Power is wherever man sees it to be. Infamy is bred in fear and Patroclus—” he fists the collar of Patroclus’s shirt and pulls him closer, tilts his head as if he were examining an artifact, a piece of art. “Patroclus, I am fear.”
Patroclus looks at the man he thinks he loves and sees only a skeleton. Dark shadows lay heavy under his eyes, cut his cheekbones into angular planes of sickly shades. He still smells of pine and salt, the fingers around Patroclus’s throat are still strong and sure. Patroclus finds it difficult to breathe.
Achilles pecks him on the cheek, turns and picks up his palette. The air returns to the room with the same ease in which it was sucked out by Achilles’s manic tirade and Patroclus is almost left dizzy by the sudden change. “Your idea is valid, I’ll think about it. Your room is ready for you back at the house, I think I’m going to finish up here, tell my father I will join him for dinner.”
That night, Achilles crawls into his bed smelling of wine and the cedar salt he sometimes puts into his baths. Patroclus gives into his touch, drowns his fear in the way Achilles grips him, the way his hands flutter with the same nervous eagerness of their first night, how he bucks and moans and hums under Patroclus’s hands. Patroclus knows the man he sleeps beside, the man that wakes him in the middle of the night with a gentle kiss, is the same man who, without hesitation, will kill him some day.
(And Patroclus knows, even in the very marrow of his bones, that he will go willingly if it means he gets to have this.)
Diomedes makes good on his promise. Odysseus arrives at the estate with two other cars in tow, features grim, neatly pressed in a suit up to par with Achilles’s own. Patroclus stays by the door, puts on his best thousand-yard stare. Two other men follow Odysseus into the room, Ajax and Phoinix. Patroclus recognizes Ajax from the file Achilles had given him that morning over breakfast. The second man, Phoinix, Peleus’s most trusted doctor, is a much more familiar face.
Patroclus thinks he stops breathing as they lead the final member of their party into Peleus’s office, the look of cleverly concealed (but still very present) surprise on Achilles’s face unmistakable.
She stumbles between the two grunts, her bare feet slapping against the hardwood floors, the bloody stubs where her finger and toenails used to be a crusted red. Briseis slumps as they push her to her knees, the pillowcase they’d secured around her face with a piece of rope around her neck—tight enough to make it difficult for her to breathe—flutters around her mouth with every pained inhale she makes.
Achilles doesn’t move from where he’s seated at Peleus’s desk, Ajax stands behind Briseis, his height blocking Patroclus’s view as he removes the bag from her face. Achilles’s face goes white, he grips the pen in his hand, the tendons of his knuckles straining against the surface of his skin. “Agamemnon sends his regards.” Phoinix’s voice is calm and cold, Ajax and Odysseus remain silent, the two goons that brought Briseis in join Patroclus at the door. Ajax plants his foot at Briseis’s back, shoves her forward. She doesn’t make a sound as she hits the floor, Achilles flicks his cold stare to Odysseus.
“The choice is yours, little prince.” Odysseus, back to Patroclus, folds his hands behind him. “Obey the boss, return what you’ve stolen and she’ll be returned to you. She wont be hurt any further if you make the right decision.” Patroclus can’t see Briseis over the backs of the three men, Phoinix’s spine is sloped with old age and fatigue, he leans heavily on his cane, both hands clasped over the silver eagle’s head affixed to the top.
Patroclus feels sick, feels his hands shake, feels Achilles turn away in disgust.
Odysseus, face grim, eyes dark, steps forward with a lock of silken black hair and a slip of paper, grabs Achilles’s hand and forces the two items into his fist. “Fix it,” Odysseus’s voice trembles slightly. Patroclus thinks he’ll kill every man in this room for her, when this is all over. Rip their eyes out of their sorry skulls. Devour ever screaming part of them. Burn their kingdom to the ground. “Fix it tonight, and this can all be put behind us. We can try to salvage what remains from this mess and start again, this war can end, we can start again as an united whole.”
They peel Briseis from the floor, Odysseus is the only one to acknowledge Patroclus with a small nod on their way out. Phoinix is the last to leave, hobbling over to lay a tired hand against Achilles’s shoulder and leans down to whisper something in his ear. Achilles’s features remain unmoved as the older man draws back, slowly exits with just the gentle rhythm of his cane hitting the floor being the only sound until one of the maids closes the door behind them. In the distance, the distinct sound of three cars starting, pulling away from the estate.
The house is deathly quiet, there’s a stain on the floor where Briseis was pushed, Patroclus can’t look away from the smear of vicious brown her bloodied hand made. “You’re not going to do anything, are you?” Patroclus’s mouth moves without warrant, he can’t quiet place where the stony quality comes from.
Achilles’s silence is answer enough.
“You know she’s the only reason I’m standing here, right now, by your side?” The space between them seems insurmountable. Patroclus can’t bare to look at Achilles, can’t fathom being able to meet those cold eyes. “Without her you and your insecurity would have won out and I would have been killed in that alley in Madrid. Without her you would have never had me, we would have never had any of this—”
“Patroclus.” Achilles says his name like Menoitius used to. Before the fist was about to be raised. Before the world was about to be reduced to the brutal meeting of flesh, pain and brilliant stars of white. “Enough.”
There was a time when he was young and angry at the world, where all Patroclus could do was aim a gun and fire, rip life from those he thought deserved it just for their creed, the family they pledged themselves to. There was a time when Patroclus was controlled by his own fear, a time where he pulled the trigger to impress a group of boys on a beach. There was a time when he followed a golden-haired man to a café three blocks away from a dingy gallery, sat and thought of moths and flames, fire and the all-consuming nature of the sea.
Now, he lifts his chin and meets Achilles’s eyes steadily. “If your hubris won’t allow it, I will go. Send me in your place.”
Somewhere, a sea-sworn deity lifts her head to the sky, blinks her tired eyes, whispers a soft word of protest.
Achilles aids him in dressing, slips the pearl buttons through the small slits of his shirt, holds the sharply cut blazer out for Patroclus to slip his arms through. There is no talk, between them. No touch is anything more than professional—Achilles smooths the wrinkles over Patroclus’s chest, dusts off his shoulders.
Finally, he unclasps the watch from around his wrist, securing it around Patroclus’s own. The thick leather band is soft against his wrist, its gold face gleaming menacingly, each number etched in the darkest obsidian. Patroclus examines himself in the mirror, when everything is set into place. There’s something… sharper, about his appearance. Something cold. He isn’t the same man he used to be. He doesn’t know how he’s supposed to feel about this.
Achilles stands behind him, wraps his arms around Patroclus’s waist and rests his chin at the curve of his shoulder. It’s the first warm touch since the office. Patroclus adjusts the watch at his wrist, inhaling deeply. He turns, and Achilles rests a hand on his chest, kisses him sweetly until all the air is sucked out of the room and he feels as though fire laps at his lungs. Patroclus cups his neck with a gentle hand, pulling away only to lean their foreheads together.
Achilles’s voice is quiet. “I’ll tell the chef to save some dinner for you.” It’s the only come back to me Patroclus is going to get. He nods, steps back and takes the briefcase holding the contract, the flimsy peace agreement, the even more fragile apology, succession of territory, funds, all meeting the demands of Agamemnon. This little defeat puts the tired slope in Achilles’s posture, this wounded animal too fatigued to writhe or bite or lash out any further. Patroclus closes his eyes and turns away. His fingers hover over the doorknob when Achilles speaks again. “Patroclus?”
He freezes but does not turn.
“Be careful,” Achilles says.
Chapter 7: a pact between lions and men
Their souls are darkening, I can hardly find my son anymore.
So purify them.
In the shadows of Hades, two rolling masses of obsidian-flecked suns caterwaul at their separation, desperately search for the other with brilliant bursts of gilded light. Their words have been reduced to just sound, so tainted with the vile natures of humanity neither god can discern what is being said.
No, not yet. I cannot bear that just yet.